I come among you as a stranger…. as a man! Thank you for welcoming me.
I’m especially pleased to come this year when the theme has been chosen by the women of France. French was my grandmother’s native tongue, my mother’s mother coming as she did from Switzerland. She met and married my grandfather after nursing him in Switzerland from his injuries during the First World War…. but that’s another story…
I was interested to hear the inspiring stories of welcoming strangers in France. And to sing a song from the Taize community in France. The Taize community and its welcome to young people has played a formative role in my life. It’s where I visited to make a retreat at a crossroads in my mid-thirties and finally decided to offer myself for ordination. Since then, I’ve been back over a dozen times and never failed to be inspired. The last time I came back over two years ago, it’s energising effect on me played a big part in my meeting and hitting it off with my wife-to be, Hazel… another big change!
The life of the Taize brothers is a wonderful example of the blessings that come through welcoming strangers. Brother Roger, the founder of the community began by sheltering Jewish refugees during the Second World War…. then afterwards German prisoners of war, and in the sixties onwards large numbers of young people looking for spiritual meaning and purpose to their lives.
When I came to become vicar in Stainforth in 1999 the example of the Taize community inspired me to welcome children and young people locally. It began with one or two coming to the vicarage door to ask if there was a job they could do. And before long it was, “Vicar can we cook your tea?”… taking pity on a poor bachelor. Something grew out of this that I never planned for or expected. Over the next ten years, over two hundred local children and young people came to cook and share a meal at the vicarage. From the beginning of course we had to set good boundaries for protection, always having a lady from church present, keeping a register, having parental consent forms…. but looking back now I can definitely say it was a risk worth taking. I learnt so much from those shared meals about the lives of local children, which in many ways was so different from my own upbringing. It helped to give me an empathy instead of judgmentalism in the face of some challenging behaviour. I discovered a friendship and loyalty that was built through sharing a meal together. Vandalism at the church decreased, and in more recent years, baptism and wedding enquiries have multiplied. Who knows what the long term benefits might be?
Normally we expect that we will read the Bible, understand something and then try to put it into practice. I found things happening the other way round…. I was experiencing something which I had missed in the Bible which I now wanted to dig into and explore.
I found the theme of welcoming the stranger to be a rich seam running through the whole Bible.
Jesus entire ministry is portrayed in Luke’s gospel as being one of a travelling banqueter… an invited guest going from home to home, like with Zaccheaus… And he tells stories like the Good Samaritan…
And I noticed that as Jesus was welcomed as a stranger, he brings blessing, healing and salvation to his hosts. We naturally think it is the welcomer giving hospitality to the stranger who is the one giving the blessing, but the Bible turns this all upside down.
You find this right from the beginning of the Bible in the story of Abraham welcoming three visitors… the result, he is blessed with the birth of a son, the beginning of the promised blessing starts with this amazing table-turning principle.
Welcoming strangers in the Bible is not an arms length form of charity for “poor people”… it’s not something which could be construed as patronising or condescending. It involves the welcomer in themselves receiving a surprising blessing, a real connection takes place, a mutuality of giving and receiving.
Who is my stranger…? We can think of different people groups… from different countries, or cultures, or beliefs. Subjects like immigration and asylum raise important and contentious political questions about appropriate boundaries. But let’s not miss the promise for fear of the challenge.
Hebrews 13 verse 2 exhorts us “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I want to challenge you to think that your stranger may also be someone nearer and more real to you than you might imagine.
What do I mean? Well I married a stranger…. I don’t mean I picked up Hazel up off the street!! But she’s very different from me, the way she thinks and sees things… Could your stranger be your husband, your child, your grandchild?
Even God can feel like a stranger to us… welcoming the release of His Spirit within our hearts and minds can make us fearful. Until we come to see and know through Jesus that God is love and love alone who has made it possible for us to draw near…
Eph 2 “But now you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ…. consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow-citizens with God’s people.” God has welcomed us as strangers!
And what does it mean to “welcome”. One of my favourite quotes about hospitality is this one by Henri Nouwen: “Listening,” he says “is the highest form of hospitality”. Will we listen to our stranger? …what blessings might follow!
Finally back to France… seven and a half years ago the Taize community was shaken when Brother Roger, aged 90, was attacked and stabbed to death during the prayers. It was a risk he took for the sake of welcoming the stranger. Another of my favourite quotes of Brother Roger is this: “Love and say it with your life”
Brother Roger was following in the footsteps of Jesus, welcoming the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ to live in and through him.
Will you also welcome the stranger?
Will you welcome the Spirit of Christ within?
Will you be open to the surprising blessing the stranger can bring?
Where Jesus leads, will you follow?