Welcome Strangers

September 1, 2019/Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost /Richard E. Holmer

First Lesson: Proverbs 25:6-7 /Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 /Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14

Welcome Strangers

To be on the receiving end of genuine hospitality is to experience a rich blessing – a true moment of grace.  When I was in high school, a family in our congregation hosted a foreign exchange student from Sweden.  His name was Bertil Aageson, and he was a year ahead of me in school.  I saw Bert at church and around the high school – but he moved in different circles, and we never became close.  A few years later a friend and I took a semester off from college to travel in Europe.  My mom suggested that we should contact Bert’s family while we were in Sweden.  We got their address from the host family, and when I wrote to let them know we would be travelling in Sweden, they invited us to stay with them.  Now, here is the interesting thing:  We would be visiting in September, and Bert would be away at college.  So the one person who actually knew me (and not really very well) would not be home – yet they welcomed us anyway.  The Aagesons lived in a suburb of Stockholm where the father worked as an Emergency Room physician.  We stayed for a couple nights and they wined and dined us sumptuously.  They treated us like extended family members.  One morning Dr. Aageson invited us to come along with him to the hospital.  When we got there he gave us white lab coats to wear and said, “Come with me.  Pretend you are interns.”  We proceeded to witness a spinal anesthesia administered with a very long needle – a bit overwhelming.  The next day they bid us farewell, and encouraged us to return in the future.  We were complete strangers, yet they welcomed us with warmth and generosity.  Their hospitality made a lasting impression.

To be able to offer hospitality is also a blessing.  Many of you recall how a few years ago we sponsored a refugee family from the Congo.  With guidance and support from Refugee One, we gathered all the furnishings for their apartment, and stocked the pantry and refrigerator.  We also raised $10,000 to help cover the cost of their travel and transition.  They arrived at O’Hare on a warm summer day.  We had a contingent of adults and kids from St. James to greet them.  They came through the gate at the International Terminal wearing winter coats – expecting Chicago to be much colder than the Congo.  We drove them to their apartment in the city, and when they walked in, they were overwhelmed.  After many years living in a refugee camp, having their own apartment with a kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms and a living room seemed like exquisite luxury.  The women squealed with delight as they opened cabinets and drawers in the kitchen.  The children were wide-eyed as they skipped around from room to room.  To witness their excitement and joy was deeply gratifying and heartwarming.  You may have been present on one of the Sundays when the whole family sang for us at worship.  They also gave an impromptu concert down at Lake Forest Beach at our beach party.  To hear the stories of the wartime violence that caused them to become refugees, and of the many years spent living in the camp made me aware of how dramatically their lives have been transformed.  You helped to make it possible by extending the gift of hospitality.

The definition of hospitality reads as follows: “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers.”  For Christians, hospitality is more than courtesy or good manners – it is our holy calling.  Today’s reading from Hebrews contains these admonitions:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”


“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.”

To fail to show hospitality is a sin of omission.  It’s a failure to love as God loves us.  And hospitality is not only for friends and family, but especially for strangers.  Jesus underscores this message in today’s gospel.  He suggests that when hosting a dinner, we should not only consider inviting friends, family or rich neighbors (who may return the favor).  Instead, says Jesus, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”  Hospitality is meant to embody the grace that God freely extends to us – and to all.  St. Paul understood the importance of hospitality as he went about planting new congregations around the Mediterranean.  In his letter to the Romans, he writes: “Extend hospitality to strangers.”  (Rom 12:13)  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”  (Rom 15:7)

We all enjoy the warm hospitality extended to us on special occasions by friends and family.  We are called by God to extend the same gracious welcome to those we don’t know.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”  (Mt 5:46)  Christian hospitality aims to open our arms wide in welcome to all.  And when we do so, Jesus assures us we will be welcoming him.  (Mt 25:35)  Likewise, when we neglect to welcome the stranger we will be neglecting Jesus.  (Mt 25:43)  One of my professors at seminary speaks to the necessity of welcoming the stranger:  “Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across differences to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”  (Letty Russell).  Lutherans in America have a strong tradition of welcoming refugees to our country.  In conjunction with agencies like Refugee One, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has welcomed over half a million refugees to America since 1939.  Those are large numbers – yet the real story is of hospitality being extended to one person or one family at a time – just as we welcomed our friends from Congo.  It’s a ministry of welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us.  Right now there are 26 million refugees worldwide awaiting resettlement.  A number of them have spent over 15 years living in refugee camps.  We cannot welcome them all, but we can do our part.  Since 1980, 3,072,416 refugees have been admitted to the United States.  Some years we have admitted more, some years less.  The average number over the past 39 years is 78,780.  The greatest number was 207,116 in 1980.  The lowest number was last year: 22,491.  (Even though the actual legal ceiling allowed for 45,000 to be admitted.)  Since the year 2000, the annual ceiling for refugees allowed to come to America has been between 70,000 and 80,000.  In 2017 it was lowered to 50,000.  In 2018: 45,000.  This year: 30,000.  The current administration has suggested reducing the number of refugees to be admitted in 2020 to 0.  For us as Christians, this is not a political issue.  It is a matter of faithfulness and compassion.  To refuse to welcome any refugees at all goes against our faith – and against our tradition as a nation.  Lutheran bishop Michael Rinehart is the Board Chair of Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service.  He has expresses his deep concerns about reducing the refugee ceiling to zero.

“As people of faith – and people with deep immigrant roots – it has fallen to the Lutheran community, and communities of faith across this country, to stand up to this grave threat to our country’s moral standing.  Closing our doors to refugees would risk the lives of tens of thousands of men, women, and children across the globe.  These are our brothers and sisters, children of God, who were born into situations of unimaginable violence and are desperately in need of our mercy, our compassion.”

Christians are called by God to extend welcoming hospitality to strangers.  It is in our spiritual DNA as Lutherans to engage in this ministry.  Here at St. James we have a history of providing hospitality to refugees.  Setting aside for the moment the hot button issues about building walls, detaining families and undocumented immigrants – let us focus on what we have always supported: welcoming documented, vetted, legitimate refugees.  Let’s seek to reverse the trend toward reducing and possibly eliminating refugee resettlement.  Christine Pohl has written a book titled: Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.  She writes:

“A life of hospitality begins in worship, with a recognition of God’s grace and generosity.  Hospitality is not first a duty and a responsibility; it is first a response of love and gratitude for God’s love and welcome to us.”

We have all been blessed by receiving gracious hospitality.  We are all blessed when we extend hospitality, because in welcoming the stranger, we are welcoming Christ.  As pastor and theologian Thomas Long has observed:  “To show hospitality to the stranger is to say, ‘We are beggars here together.  Grace will surprise us both.’”  May we together find ways to make room for such grace.