“Imagine a World Where All Are Welcome”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 23, 2008
University Baptist Church
Imagine a world where all are welcome.
Imagine a world that remembers that we were all strangers once.
Imagine a world that remembers that we are called to welcome the outcast and the stranger. Aside from all of the trite Thanksgiving platitudes, we remember that the image of the table is one where all are welcome, even enemies, even strangers, even people of different languages, who like different kinds of food, who have different cultural understandings.
We at UBC have helped resettle two refugee families from the refugee camps along the Burma/Thailand border. The border has been in dispute for half a century because the Karen people and the Burmese government recognize different borders and have conflicting views of law and justice. Three quarters of the latest issue of the Baptist Peacemaker, the magazine of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America highlights the plight of these people from Burma and their resettlement to the US. Many of them end up in Baptist Churches because Adoniram and Anne Judson began their missionary work amongst the Karen people almost 200 years ago.
I remember us bringing Tin Aye’s family here with her 6 boys and later Lay Taw Du, Esther and their four children. We gathered at the airport, people in Karen clothing, dotting the crowds, looking with anticipation for their long-lost friends and family members. After getting the luggage taken care of and the initial welcomes out of the way, we took them to their apartments—furnished, and the first few months rent paid by our donations. Amidst all of this was the anticipation of school beginning, the endless doctor appointments, the adjustment to Minnesota winters, the jet lag and the relief all around them. We were met at their new home by hoards of Karen people, all of whom had been there, done that. They provided a thanksgiving meal for all of us to share. We spoke the few Karen or Thai words we knew, we helped them with their broken English. I played with the kids on the floor. And sometime, someone prayed fervently for their safe passage and for all those who are still left behind in the camps. It was holy time.
When I think of those experiences, I can’t help but think of today’s scripture from Matthew’s Gospel. Many people focus upon the judgment portion of the scripture where we get to consider whether we are sheep or goats at the great reckoning time of God. If I were a more fire and brimstone preacher, I might wax feverishly about the lake of fire and the eternal torment that awaits the so-called goats. But I prefer to think about this as a text that reminds us that all are welcome at God’s table.
Jesus knew that there were untouchables in his society. Anawim is the Aramaic word for the outcast, the untouchable, the stranger. These were ones that respectable people, especially religious folk would seek to avoid. Jesus spent time with lepers, debunking religious and health taboos. He welcomed women into his inner circle, a no-no in patriarchal religious movements, especially at certain times of the month when they are automatically unclean. He ate with tax collectors and publicans—that’s publicans. He called into question the injustice of the banking and mortgage system as he turned over the tables of the moneychangers. He even had us pray to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Each Sunday, we repeat his radical words about wealth redistribution. This made him popular with a certain class of people and made him dangerous to another class.
And to put icing on the cake, just in case folk didn’t get it in the first three years of his ministry, he said this in the last week of his life:
“Come unto me...inherit the commonwealth of God that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the righteous sheep said, “I don’t remember seeing you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison.” And Jesus responded to them, “Just as you did it unto the least of these who are my sisters and my brothers, you have done it unto me.”
Jesus is not only saying, “remember the outcast.” He is saying, “welcome them like you welcome me. That’s how you account for your life.”
You know, there’s a conundrum in scripture. You remember how the unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ body for burial, sensually wiping the costly oil with her hair. Judas, the bean counter of the disciples, rebuked her saying how they should use this money for the poor. Jesus rebuked Judas saying that the poor will always be here, but he—Jesus—will not. This seems to contradict today’s scripture. It kinda lets us off the hook. Don’t worry about the poor and the outcast. They always will be here. But Jesus will not be here always, so we need to put our devotion upon Jesus.
Here’s how I reconcile today’s scripture with that one. Yes, Jesus will not always be here. The person Jesus who is anointed for burial. He will die a mortal death like all of us. It will be quicker for Jesus because he has been so audacious as to speak the truth to power and those in power seek to silence him. This one person, this Jesus we will not have forever. But Christ will be here forever. Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s the designation of Jesus’ God-character. It is the constant presence of the poor and the outcast. They are the face of Christ today. And yes, they will be here constantly.
They will be naked and hungry and thirsty and thrown in prison because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or had the wrong color skin or didn’t have the funds for a lawyer. They will be the ones who are misunderstood and mistrusted by organized religion. They will be the scapegoats for the difficulties we all face, the target of fear and smear campaigns. This is the face of the poor that we will have with us constantly. And here’s the rub. That’s where we will find Christ: in and amongst them. And as we unlock our own compassion, not pity which feels sorry for someone’s sorry plight but compassion that walks alongside them and asks the hard questions about how we solve these problems. When we have compassion on them, then we find a bit of Christ even amongst ourselves. We are slower to judge. We are fixated on meeting immediate needs and then asking the harder questions about how we might solve the systemic problems that keeps them in such dire straits. This is the impetus and the power of the Gospel message which we celebrate today. It’s a message that imagines a world where all are welcome.
So on this Thanksgiving, remember the mission of Jesus to welcome all at the table. Remember those who are not at the table. Ask why. Ask what you can do. Imagine a world where all are welcome in your table blessing and then do something to help make it happen.
When I went to Nicaragua five years ago to visit our sister church, they invited me to preach. They gave me a week’s warning instead of twenty minutes like they did this past summer. They assigned me the scripture passage that we have been looking at this morning about the sheep and the goats. It’s such a countercultural thing to preach about in the first world, but in the two-thirds world it’s incredibly good news because it reminds people that regardless of what the media and the military and even the prosperity Gospel Pentecostal church down the street says, God is on their side. God is always with the poor and the hungry and the thirsty and the imprisoned and the naked and the stranger and the sick.
I remember being very humbled in that church—me with all of my relative wealth and comfort and ability to turn off the needs of the outcast, and all the while being amongst the very poor and outcast and hungry and thirsty. I felt a longing for their religious fervor and commitment. I spoke about some of the programs that we do here with the homeless and the hungry, about welcoming the stranger like we do for those among us that are not welcome in their own families let alone another church. But what I said was the best evidence of faithfulness was what I saw among them. When they can afford it, which isn’t often, they cook food for the people living at the dump outside of Leon. Families eking out a living in the squalor of the dump, fighting with the crows for the scraps of food coming out of the garbage trucks.
They took us with them to deliver the food. We drove up the hill opf garbage along with the belching diesel trucks with their deliveries. People came toward all of the trucks, including ours, in order to get first dibs on the latest deliveries. We smell the rotten food. We saw the makeshift shelters of the 75 or so people who lived there. We saw barefoot children dismantling the toxic waste from calculators and computers and cell phones, looking for those pieces of copper or mercury they can sell. They greet us with tentative thanks as we scoops out food and drinks. There is no preaching, no conversion conversations. St. Francis of Assisi said that we are to preach every day and only if necessary use words. The next truck pulls up and off they are with poles and rebar to rake through the next delivery of refuse.
When our sister church met with Feed my Starving Children this past September, they spoke about the people at the dump. One staff member asked if they ever saw hospital waste. They said, “of course. You mean you put your hospital waste somewhere else?”
When did I see you poor or hungry or thirsty or a stranger or in prison or sick? Whenever you have done it for the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you have done it unto me.
This ethic that Jesus gave is not a new one. Like many of the things Jesus said and did and advocated for, it was actually a restating of the Torah, the law attributed to Moses and God.
No less than the holiness code of Leviticus ought to be mentioned here. Hear these words from the 19th chapter of Leviticus verse 33 and 34. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
When Jesus said you shall love your neighbor as yourself, he was quoting Leviticus 19. You shall love your neighbor, the alien, the Anawim as yourself. This sums up the law and the prophets—the whole core of the Hebrew Bible.
It need not even be mentioned that the alien is not loved nor seen as neighbor these days. In fact the alien is seen as the enemy by too many of us. But the alien, the foreigner, the refugee, they are our neighbors. In fact, they are the body of Christ.
How do we reconcile that with the popular political priority of protecting our borders and keeping foreigners out? There is a Biblical mandate and contradiction in such thinking that we need to constantly pay attention to and oppose in the name of Christ, the stranger, the misunderstood alien who seeks to be among us,
So given all of that, what else are we to do? We have already done some. We have brought donations here. We have celebrated the lives of those in the refugee community. We have been moved by their stories and their songs and their plight. We have held them with compassion. There is a team of people at UBC that are exploring how we can be of further assistance to and in solidarity with the refugee community. You can hear more about it in the forum today.
But I would ask each of you to consider your own posture toward the stranger this morning. Think of the outcast, the foreigner, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner. Think of them and their unique circumstances. Think of them as the present-day images of Christ. And when you do, consider how you would respond to Jesus’ invitation to be sheep in a world of goats.
I’ll take my lead from some of them. I’ll remember how our sister church welcomed me and the other delegations from the US, giving us the choicest foods, showering us with gifts, pulling out all of the stops for the strangers.
A couple of years ago, Tin Aye and her family invited me over to her home for lunch. It was an elaborate meal with many courses. She had just a small table and only four chairs to be shared by the six of us invited to the meal. She wanted to give thanks for all of the gifts that we had given to her and to her sons. She said that she was so thankful for the way our church rallied around her and her family. It was a great thanksgiving. She reminded me that we can be Christ to each other, when we really want to be.
When I eat way too much food this coming Thursday, I’ll think about those elaborate meals in simple places. I know that I will stop at my prayer and remember those less fortunate, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, the shunned, the homeless, the victims of violence, the mentally ill, the people in the two-thirds world. I’ll pray that the food I eat will sustain me and help me to be a better servant of Christ, a companion with Christ, a sheep with Christ so that a portion of the world might be a brighter and more hopeful place. May we all pray and work for the vision that we see Christ in all people—that our tables witness to the fact that we are all connected, all blessed by God and responsible for and accountable to each other. May we not only imagine a world where all are welcome, but may we also help create such a world. This we pray in the name of Christ who is with us always.