Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Welcoming the Stranger…

I blame Hallmark, although- perhaps- Christians helped perpetuate the lie. My enlightenment about this issue came from a pastoral colleague. A couple years back, a group of us were discussing some Christmas passage about the manger, when the lie popped up. Someone (me) said, “Isn’t it sweet to think about Jesus, in the manger, lying in hay, amidst all those cute sheep?” And while now I know how wrong that statement was, I feel completely justified in having said it. After all, I’d grown up with Hallmark’s many nativity scenes, and all those fluffy sheep on their cards, etc. But my colleague spoke up, “Oh, young man; let me learn you something. Sheep are not cute. If you’d lived in a farming community like me, you’d know how smelly, loud and dirty the manger of Jesus’ birth truly was.”

Sure, this may not be the most grievous error that religion or the greeting card industry could perpetrate on humankind, but it does shift one’s imagination about the beloved Christmas story. Think of Jesus, wrapped in swaddling (and scratchy) cloth, lying in a rickety manger, surrounded by baying barn animals, Mary doing her best to calm the child’s anxiety. And suddenly, Scripture suggests, shepherds appear, having spent the whole day (and probably the past couple days) wrestling their smelly sheep in nearby fields. Not as idyllic and serene as other portrayals of that landmark event, but it’s a telling of the story saturated in theological riches.

Remember Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25? It’s a vision of the Last Judgment, where the Eternal Judge separates “the sheep from the goats.” To both camps, Jesus pronounces the following words: Whatsoever you do unto these my children, even the least, you do so unto me. The rest of story goes that some had clothed the naked, fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger, while others had not.

That final notion, welcoming the stranger, had a long history in the religious life of Jesus’ people. Genesis tells of Abraham and Sarah sitting around the tent, when some strange fellows walk up to them. Turns out they’re angels, and they’ve come with the message this couple had waited upon for decades, “Sarah, you’re about to be pregnant.” That story says as much about welcoming the stranger as it does about trusting in God’s providence. Jewish law makes provision for certain cities in the nation of Israel to be cities of Sanctuary, where asylum would be offered any stranger who needs help and a new start to life. Christians for millennia have practiced, as essential to our faith, numerous acts of welcoming the stranger. We call it hospitality. And from the Disciples of Christ perspective, the hospitality we’re called to extend is open to any and all, to every person that would come share the bounty of the Lord’s Table in our midst. You might say that at the core of our faith is a value we at Plymouth Creek hold dear. Indiscriminate hospitality. Welcoming each and every stranger God brings our way.

But we don’t think of that concept very often when we’re talking Christmas, right? Indiscriminate hospitality gets practiced during Communion, in remembrance of Jesus’ final meal with his Disciples. Christmas, rather, is all about fluffy sheep and wealthy wise men laden with presents. Think again. Those sheep and their shepherds were not the most illustrious of houseguests. The wise men are a different story, though I’d imagine the conversation via interpreter proved rather halting. As strangers to Bethlehem, of course, Mary and Joseph had received welcome when no room was found at the local Inn. Then, it seems the Holy Couple responded in kind and welcomed other strangers, shepherds and foreign dignitaries and more besides, to share the joy of their newborn child. They practiced indiscriminate hospitality at the beginning of Jesus’ life, setting him on a path that would extend God’s open-armed adventure to more than anyone would’ve dared imagine.

So Merry Christmas! May you receive abundant welcome at many tables, and even find time to welcome a stranger or two who needs it. You never know when God might drop in.

Grace and Peace,


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