Sermon – September 17, 2017 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost


Welcoming the Stranger

At exactly 6:55 AM Central time on Friday, the Cassini spacecraft was vaporized as it plummeted through Saturn’s atmosphere and this historic pioneer became part of the planet that it studied for over a decade.  Cassini was launched 20 years ago on an ambitious mission to investigate the planet Saturn and to mark the vast space between. It traveled 931.4 million miles to get there, it shot pictures of Venus and Jupiter on its way, dropped a scientific probe onto Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, took hundreds of thousands of photographs and gathered unprecedented data that will be poured over and celebrated for years. In its final days, it made dangerous and dramatic dips in and out of the rings of Saturn, sending back the results of its final forays in the farthest reach of space humanity has ever achieved. And Friday, even as it plunged to its fiery demise, it sent back a report on the very atmosphere that consumed it.

This stuff blows my mind. I don’t know about you, but I cannot but feel the awesomeness, the vastness and the incredible creative power of God in the midst in this. Cosmology and astronomy—these gifts of God–give us the scientific tools to peer into space and time, only to discover that there is ever and always wonder beyond the wonder, and it leaves me slack-jawed. Now, the physicists and mathematicians among us could school us on the scientific method that takes us to this wonder, and I am grateful for them. This is pure science, yet it prompts my faith to behold the wonder of God.

But, like the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, we can’t just stand around with our head in the clouds, can we? God is not just out there lapping up our awe as the divine hands spin new universes from an inexpressible space. God is discovered right here in good old terra firma through the complexity and wonder of our own human relationships. Take for example our relationships with the other, the stranger, the alien, ones with whom the gap between us could be as vast as the space between the planets. Our lesson from Leviticus today, part of the  Torah, a bit of bibliography of the law, admonished the people to care for the stranger among them, treating them justly and welcoming them into their community. This ethic is not isolated or anecdotal.. It is splashed all across the history of Israel both in its occupation of the land, its time in exile, and its return from captivity. It spans their history from the judges to the Kings from patriarchs to prophets.   Now, one’s relationship with God and encounter with God under the law was in the faithful practice in execution and obedience to the law, so something of the character of God is revealed and encountered in Israel’s just and compassionate relationship with the stranger, the alien. Because God says so.  It was unambiguous and was tied to the ethics of mercy and justice. The admonition was reinforced with the regular reminder that God’s people, too, had been aliens and wanderers and faced the same struggles as the strangers now in their midst.

So, this understanding of God’s relationship with the world and the people’s relationship with others was embraced by the new community, the Christian church, that celebrated Jesus as the promised Messiah. This good news was shared with the nations, the pagans,  the nonbelievers, the non-Jews.  The language of the faith broke down these barriers for the sake of the gospel, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”   The  writer of Hebrews intimated that even divine messengers could be encountered in the stranger.  And,  Jesus indicated in his own  teaching and ministry that he himself could be met in the compassionate care and in relationship with the stranger.  “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, . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

So, it should come as no surprise that the church,  when it is at its best, welcomes and embraces the strangers, the aliens, the least as part of its basic practices of ministry.

Now, as Lutherans this is something that we have done historically with great vigor and great success. Talking particularly about the Lutheran agency called Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. They’ve been around for decades.. It has had other names over time, but since the second world war it has settled over 280,000 refugees and has partnered in the welcome and cultivation of hundreds of thousands more immigrants. All this began in earnest with those who were fleeing the Nazis, but over the years broadened its embrace to people across the globe.  Cubans fleeing Castro, Ugandans fleeing the violent dictator Idi Amin, Chilean’s escaping Pinochet’s oppressive regime, the boat people from Hong Kong and Macau, the survivors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Albanians forced out of Kosovo, the lost boys of Sudan, Burmese refugees, Tibetans and Butanese fleeing persecution, the Hmong from Indochina, Vietnamese after the war,  Iraqis seeking refuge from seemingly endless conflict, and recently – until US policy made it almost impossible – Syrian refugees on the run from the crossfire of the Syrian war.

Being their advocate and refuge is something fundamental to who we are as Lutheran Christians.

We all got a good laugh from Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie, Gran Torino.   This was a story about a grumpy, disgruntled Korean War vet named Walt who one day woke up to find that a family of Hmong had moved in next door to his Minneapolis home. You might say he wasn’t the best neighbor, but as their relationships grew it turned out that through them, Walt kind of found himself. I won’t spoil it for you. Just see it. Anyway, in one scene Walt has extracted his teenage neighbor girl from a dicey situation and they finally began to speak with one another. Now, the Hmong were hill people from Laos and Cambodia. During the Vietnam War, they assisted the CIA, and after the war they were in danger under the new regime and had to flee to refugee camps outside of their home countries.   The Lutheran Church through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services got involved to extract these people from these camps and they successfully resettled over 150,000 of them. So, as they drove along, Walt says to the young lady, “how did you get here?” And she says, “blame the Lutherans.” To which Walt replies, “everybody blames the Lutherans.”

I was of the mind to put that on a T-shirt but decided I didn’t want to explain myself every time someone looked at. Anyway the point is that the reach of Lutheran Immigration Services, the  character of the church, the witness of our community with regard to the stranger was recognized not just among the usual suspects—other religious organizations and government agencies–but was recognized even in the areas of popular culture.

Now, it’s not just the Lutherans or even the church who has embraced the opportunity to welcome the stranger. Businesses have done it. Local state and federal governments have participated, and immigrant communities themselves have provided resources and encouragement and means for settlement of new Americans.   All of this has coalesced recently in one particularly gratifying way, the New American Welcome Center. This is a coalition that spans our communities, including businesses, government entities like the library, the University, the YMCA, churches, the mosque, the synagogue, the schools, the Park District. These are the partners in the New American Welcome Center, are all hosting events to enhance the welcome of our community for the stranger. The Center crosses political, religious, cultural and community lines and it is notable – in fact remarkable – that so many people of diverse interest have collaborated in a common effort to make Champaign-Urbana an even more welcoming place to the immigrant and refugee.   The goal is to engage on several levels, including job training and employment, citizenship and civic engagement, health, language,  play, community development and one to one relationship building. It is an effort to recognize the great gifts that immigrants, like our own forebears, bring into communities, from education to our economic life to our cultural practices.. All of this is an effort to help communities move beyond divisiveness and fragmentation to unity and cooperation and understanding. There is a long list of all the activities out in the narthex and I encourage you to take a look at some. You will see the bridges being built between people of different political persuasions, cultural histories, religious orientations and communities.  Now you just can’t blame the Lutherans!

Those of us who come from a faith tradition are able to understand the value of this because it speaks in our mother tongue, and other segments of the community look to us for guidance because of that,  but it isn’t always easy.  Our relationships with the other have always been mixed.  Sometimes it seems that we will need to cover a chasm of understanding and acceptance as distant as Cassini’s journey from earth to Saturn.  But, as always, we do not do this alone.  Because in the Christian faith, we profess that we follow who has pioneered the way, one whose cross spanned an even greater gap between life and death, sin and forgiveness, alienation and welcome..

Let’s pay attention.  Let’s be alert.   We don’t have to look to the cosmos to see the wonders that God can accomplish.  Turns out the stranger in front of us is the very neighbor our scriptures so call us to embrace. We can see the work of the Spirit building and healing and sustaining relationships right here among us and out of that bringing something totally new .

Might we not in this also behold the wonder of God?………… Amen