Rev Frank’s May 3, 2014 sermon
“I WAS A STRANGER AND YOU WELCOMED ME”
May 3, 2014
Westmount Park United Church
Two people were travelling along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the first Easter day when a stranger overtook them and they fell into conversation with him. Cleopas and his companion were astonished that this man was completely unfamiliar with the tragic events which had just transpired. The great teacher and healer, Jesus from Galilee, had been crucified just two days before and the whole city was still seething with the aftermath of shouting mobs and cruel execution. The man who walked with them, sharing their journey, was a stranger indeed to know nothing of the grim events that had gripped virtually everyone in that area. Everyone in Jerusalem knew about Jesus’ crucifixion just as surely as everyone in Montreal knows that the Montreal Canadiens, the only Canadian team to make it into the Stanley Cup playoffs this year, swept their first series in four straight games against Tampa Bay and are now facing their arch rivals, the Boston Bruins.
Cleopas and his companion might have forgotten that brief encounter with a stranger had they just talked along the way with him and then parted when they reached their home. But Cleopas was a good and kind person. He and his companion were disciples of Jesus and may have learned something from him about the need to care for our neighbours, even when they are strangers. Perhaps they had heard Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan and had taken it to heart. In any event, since evening had come when they reached Emmaus, the couple invited this stranger into their home to partake of the evening meal and to spend the night.
The need to be hospitable to strangers would not be just something that these two disciples learned from Jesus. They would know from scriptures that strangers or foreigners should be welcomed and cared for. In the book of Deuteronomy it says, “The Lord your God … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Deuteronomy 10:17 19] The Laws and traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the example and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament set before us the challenge to welcome strangers. In his letter to the Romans Paul says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” [Romans 12:13] The letter to the Hebrews says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” [Hebrews 13:1 2]
I have on occasion stayed at a retreat centre in New Jersey operated by Benedictine monks. When you stay with Benedictines you are always treated well because the Rule of St. Benedict says that you should treat strangers as you would treat Christ. It is a rule that is simple to state but not at all easy to follow. Strangers, people we don’t know, people who are strange and foreign to us, can easily be neglected and forgotten. But the Rule of St. Benedict and the Jewish Torah and the teachings of Jesus are quite clear about our need to welcome and care for strangers. In Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgement the Son of Man welcomes those on his right by saying to them, “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,” while to those on his left he says, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” [Matthew 25:35&42 43] Jesus is present in those who are in need, the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger, so when we give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and when we welcome a stranger it is Jesus we are helping, even though the one we are helping may be a stranger to us.
Without knowing it two disciples of Jesus welcomed the resurrected Christ into their home by welcoming a stranger. Jesus was not revealed to the couple in Emmaus after they had given him a few scraps of food to eat and allowed him to sleep in the barn. This stranger was welcomed into their home, to share their meal as one would share it with a close friend, and it was at the moment when he broke bread with them that their eyes were opened and they realized that by welcoming a stranger they had been showing hospitality to their risen Lord.
It is not an easy thing to be open to and welcoming of strangers. We teach our children to be cautious and suspicious of strangers, and rightly so. When strangers approach us in metro stations it is not so that they can expound the scriptures but so that they can beg for money. Whenever people come to my office for some sort of benevolent assistance I don’t say to them, “Why don’t you come over to my house for supper and then maybe you could stay the night.” Despite Jesus’ parables about the Good Samaritan and the Final Judgement, and St. Benedict’s rule that we should treat a stranger as we would treat Christ, it is difficult to break out beyond the close circles of family and friends and personal concerns that wrap themselves around our lives. It is difficult to be welcoming and understanding of people with ideas and cultures very different from our own, let alone expect to find Christ in them, to learn and grow through them, to experience resurrection with them.
We celebrate Easter by worshipping in familiar ways, hearing the cherished story of women coming to the empty tomb, singing the traditional Easter hymns. We expect to feel the presence of the risen Christ by getting in touch with that which is familiar and comfortable. But the two on the road to Emmaus experienced the presence of the risen Christ by welcoming someone they didn’t know, by having this total stranger lead them to a new understanding of scripture. The experience of resurrection came for them when they had been willing to open themselves to new understanding and new experience. The experience of resurrection came when they were open to being led and instructed by a total stranger.
There can be many barriers which keep me from treating all God’s children, including strangers, as my neighbours. There may be differences in language or culture or religion or value systems, and if any of these differences prevent me from realizing that all the strangers in this world are my brothers and sisters then the way lies open for me to be indifferent to them, or to neglect them, or, in the extreme case, to seek to destroy them because I regard them as my mortal enemies. Nearly two thousand years ago an angry mob in Jerusalem got a bit out of control. They had been stirred up to the point of wanting blood and the Roman Governor decided that the death of one innocent man would be only a small price to pay to appease the mob. The execution by crucifixion was carried out by Roman soldiers, but Peter, as we read in the second chapter of Acts, accused the people of Jerusalem of being the ones who were responsible for Jesus’ death. They treated this stranger from Galilee with contempt and ridicule and because of that he was crucified.
Because of the way in which two people on the road to Emmaus treated a stranger they came to experience the presence of the resurrected Christ in their midst. When we welcome strangers and treat them as brothers and sisters, when we are open to seeing in a stranger the face of Christ, then we are open to new experiences of resurrection.