[A shorter version of this blog appeared in The Light Magazine, Apr 2017]
The same sermon theme will be preached in over one-hundred-and-fifty Vancouver churches on Sunday June 11, this year. Our theme: welcoming the stranger. I feel giddy with anticipation as I type! This is a response to the present fear-based political climate, especially in the U.S., that breeds suspicion of ‘outsiders’. It is also a response to the isolation that many Vancouverites feel, daily. Together, we are sending a unified message to the city, a vision of the kingdom: the radical welcome of God, in Christ.
The idea for One City, One Message came initially from City Councillor Andrea Reimer at the Vancouver City Summit, a city-wide consultation of pastors interested in pursuing together the wellbeing of their neighbourhoods and the city. The theme of welcoming the stranger is timely: survey-based research by the Vancouver Foundation shows that Vancouverites are experiencing a crisis of social isolation, a corrosion of care that results in a silo mentality. Our lives are bounded by ethnicity, culture, language, income, age, and geography. Isolation is experienced across Canada, not only in Vancouver. Maclean’s magazine reflected that a ‘good’ neighbour is experienced as someone who doesn’t bother you, either by disrupting your enjoyment of your home or by threatening your property value (August 2014).
This is timely, too, as we are living in a period of unprecedented global displacement, where over 65 million people around the world have been forced from home. In this context, many Canadian Christians are frustrated by populist politics that scapegoats vulnerable people such as refugees. The murder of six people in the Centre Culturel Islamique de Quebec mosque is a tragic symbol of the human toll of fear-based politics. Many thoughtful Christians are also concerned that their church is not more diverse. Others wonder why their church doesn’t embrace vulnerable people in their neighborhood.
Intuitively, we know that Christ’s way is different. To illustrate this difference, a good friend of mine arranged to visit Jean Vanier. When my friend arrived, Jean Vanier didn’t greet him with words. Instead, Vanier took my friend’s hand. The two strangers held hands as they walked some distance to a room in which they were to share in conversation. This experience of walking hand-in-hand with a stranger reminded my friend of the deep human connection that the gospel invites us into. This story recalls the event of Jesus’ healing the leper. You may remember the phrase: filled with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched the man (Mark 1:41). Jesus didn’t have to touch this man, he could have healed him with a word. But, Jesus wanted to touch him. Jesus was so deeply human, so full of life, of love, of kinship, of skin, of longing, of touch, of community.
Oh, to be communities that reek of this kinship-connection, especially for the sake of those who are without kin and without home. But, where to start? Scripture teaches us that radical welcome doesn’t come out of thin air; it begins with gratitude for God’s gifts. A First Nations leader once said, “Human beings are like my pigs. They eat the apples, but they never look up to see where the apples have fallen from.” Could it be, that our connection with ‘strangers’ is entwined with our connection with God? So, let’s explore for a moment how to nourish our churches to thanksgiving. And, let’s unpack this biblical movement from thanksgiving to welcome. To do this unpacking, consider the feast of Weeks, in Deuteronomy. The feast of Weeks is a harvest festival celebrating God’s abundant supply; it is an evocative portrait for communities of welcome.
From the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain, begin to count seven weeks. Then you will observe the feast of weeks to Yahweh your God, with a proportionate freewill offering from your hand, which you give according to the measure with which Yahweh your God blesses you. Feast before Yahweh your God, you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your female slave, the Levite within your settlements, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that Yahweh your God chooses as a dwelling for his name. (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).
Imagine the joy of this feast! Imagine pilgrimaging from the family farm to Jerusalem, the fellowship, the ritualized time, the smell of boiling meat, the warmth of wine, the tastes of festal recipes, the waiting, fulfilment, welcome, liturgical life—all before Yahweh who supplies the harvest! This feast had a main purpose: to nourish God’s ancient people as a community of gratitude and of welcome. There is a three-part dynamic: (1) Yahweh gives the land and its produce, (2) the people respond in thanksgiving with celebration, (3) which goes hand-in-hand with welcome for vulnerable people: the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Let’s walk through these three movements.
1. God who gives
In her book Radical Gratitude, Mary Jo Leddy, a Catholic nun and an advocate for refugees, tells the story of a period in her life where she found it difficult to be grateful. God jolted her out of her dissatisfaction through a refugee family who was staying with her in her house. A young girl in the family was peering out of Mary’s kitchen window. The girl saw the garage through the window. She asked, “Who lives there?” Mary’s world suddenly inverted as she recognized that someone could live there—a number of people in fact. As Mary answered, “The car,” her world was opened up to the abundance, even overabundance, that she had been gifted with. This story unpacks key themes of the feast of Weeks of divine gift and thankfulness.
The feast of Weeks celebrates the gift of the barley and wheat harvest. The feast is reminding the community that at the heart of reality is a God of limitless generosity. Gordon Spykman writes, “God’s creation is evidence of the caring hand of the Creator reaching out to secure the well-being of His creatures, of a Father extending a universe full of blessings to His children.” How can we nourish our communities towards thanksgiving? Here’s an idea for nourishing thanksgiving: the congregation (or home group) is invited to pray out-loud short prayers of thanksgiving. Another is that during worship, everyone is invited to write something that they were thankful for on a post-it note and stick it on the wall of the sanctuary.
2. A welcoming and grateful feast!
Another way to nourish gratitude is through shared celebrations. In the feast of Weeks, grateful feasting responds to the abundant flow of blessing: Feast! Slaughter the lamb! Share the wine! At the feast, relationships were deepened and vulnerable people were enfolded. The closest I have come to experiencing the joy of Israel’s ancient feast is in my previous life as a jazz pianist. I would often play keyboard in Latino bands at huge Latino festivals. Thousands from the Latin American community would gather together to dance and to eat. When our band began to play, the whole arena would move. Every generation knew the traditional dances, and everyone, it seemed, could dance with ease and with joy. These experiences can give us a sense of what Israel’s ancient festivals must have felt like. The whole community, rich and poor, young and old, feasted together before the Lord with music and dancing. Joyfully receiving the good gifts of Yahweh is at the heart of a covenant response in scripture. And to be faithful, feasting must be full of welcome and shared in diversity.
Feasting could be an imaginative response to fear-based, nationalistic rhetoric. Some of us may feel angry in this political climate, tempted to share a quick meme on Facebook. But, what if a welcoming feast is the best antidote to a silo mentality? Eating in community easily trumps the shrill twitter of fear. We need to teach our communities how to feast with gratitude.
3. Welcoming the stranger
A shared life is the third movement: feasting together with the stranger, fatherless, and widow. We might say that welcome is the other-side-of the-coin of thanksgiving. Israel was called into a shared life. Mike Mason writes, “We live as if we are Adam, as if we are the only person on earth.” However, Christ’s people are invited to move from individualism toward a more communal identity, a shared life where together we partake in the sacraments, feasting, mission, prayer, love, worship, living-arrangements, raising children, advocacy, justice, and more. The biblical vision is for Christ followers to live truly and deeply as kindred, as brothers and sisters in Christ, serving shoulder-to-shoulder in the work of the Kingdom.
A biblical community is also a diverse community. The feast of Weeks invites the church into something much more than charity for marginalized people (see also Luke 15:1-2). We are called to share our lives, engaging those less fortunate in relationships that are mutually transformative. We learn in the feast of Weeks that where Yahweh reigns, God’s restoring influence not only extends to individuals who suffer but also reaches deeply into our communities and heals through rearrangement. Christ invites us to place the weakest among us at the center.
Consider a very concrete question: who sits around your table at dinner time? And, who is invited to your Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts? As you picture your table, do you see people who are all the same as you? Or, are your feasts more like Christ’s meals—recall the Pharisee’s criticism: “This man receives sinners, and eats with them!” (Luke 15:2) Do you share your life with people who are ethnically different from you, or impoverished, or addicted? Sharing life in diversity transforms us. Do you want your church to change? Start by changing your own meal invitation list. Then, invite friends into this practice. Next, watch what Christ begins to do in your church! Next, as many churches live into this kingdom way, watch what Christ begins to do throughout the city!
‘Welcoming the stranger’ takes us to the very heart of Christian identity and mission. Our shared initiative, One City, One Message, takes seriously that we are a people called to announce the good news that in Christ, crucified and risen, God is at last reconciling all of the creation—forgiving sin, reconciling humanity to God, and reconciling humanity with one another. But, it’s not too helpful just to say it. This good news will only be believed when it is embodied by a community that is living it. Through our shared life, lived gratefully before the Lord, others too will come to know the radical welcome of God, in Christ. #IWasAStranger