Welcoming the Stranger

Welcoming the Stranger

Jamie Howison’s sermon from Christmas Eve

Merry Christmas everyone. After four weeks of Advent preparation, we can finally say those good words, and sing some of those great carols. For those of you who have come tonight as visitors—maybe even feeling a bit like strangers—I hope that as the evening rolls forward you’ll feel like you are welcome guests, even friends.

One of the things that comes with being a downtown church is that we often do have visitors, and not just on an occasion like Christmas Eve. Everyone who comes to saint benedict’s table on a regular basis will be able to tell you a story or two about the stranger who arrived in our midst on a Sunday night; sometimes seeking warmth from the cold or hoping to find a bit of food to fill an empty stomach. Sometimes the stranger comes with a lot of hurt or anger or confusion, and sometimes those things are complicated by the fact that they’ve been drinking. When that happens it can be pretty disarming, disruptive, unsettling, but you have to keep the doors open, right? Because you just never know…

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Like the Sunday evening when a young woman wandered in while the musicians were rehearsing, and ended up falling asleep up in the choir area. None of us realized she’d done that until midway through the Eucharistic prayer she suddenly popped up behind me in the choir stalls… Imagine her surprise, when she looked out and discovered the church was full of people… She sank back down again, hoping no one had noticed her, and we just rolled forward with worship. All the while here’s my assumption: she had been drinking, and had passed out. It is a downtown church, after all… What I found out when I spoke with her after worship was that she was diabetic and her blood sugars were all out of kilter, which is why she’d passed out. Not only that, but she’d come into the church because she was worried and needed a place to think. Her boyfriend was getting out of jail the next day, and he was sure to spend the day drinking. When he drank he got unpredictable, even violent, and she was scared. I managed to make a connection for her to some resources if she did need to get to a safe place, but at some level the most significant thing that happened that night was my being reminded of how the stranger sometimes comes in and unsettles our assumptions.

 

Two years ago on Christmas Eve, a different stranger arrived. He settled himself down in one of those pews, sitting beside a man who is often here at Christmas. That stranger took out a little notebook and pen, and scrawled out a message explaining that he was deaf, on the road back home to Nova Scotia, stuck here in Winnipeg for the next few days, and in need of $20 to pay for his room for the night. That man slipped him a twenty—it was Christmas Eve after all—and then at the end of worship and in the midst of our post-service celebrations, he brought the stranger over and introduced him to me. The stranger showed me the same message in his notebook, and asked me for $20. Well, you never know what to think, and every church pastor in the city will have stories to tell you about being taken in by some hard-luck story, but… it was Christmas Eve after all. My wallet was in the sacristy, up in the front through that door, so I told the guy to wait and I’d see what I could do. I wound my way through all of the people, grabbed a twenty from my wallet, and wound my way back again and gave it to him. I decided I wasn’t going to second-guess this guy, you know? It’s Christmas.

 

A few minutes later I was standing in the middle of the aisle, and looked up to see that stranger going through that door… what is he up to? I again wound my through the celebrations, and just as I went through that first door I saw him pushing open the exit door that would take him out into the back lane. “Excuse me!” I said, and he turned around and looked at me. Maybe not so deaf? I turned my head to look into the sacristy, and there in very plain view sat the offering baskets. It took just that instant for him to be gone, running off into the dark night. My heart sank. There were still envelopes and bills in those two baskets, but it was pretty evident that a good handful were gone. I was angry, then I felt foolish that I’d been so easily taken, then resentful, then discouraged, then angry again… Tough to enjoy the rest of the evening.

 

It quite dogged me over the next few days. Every time I thought about it, I’d get this vaguely hollow, sick feeling in my gut. Angry, foolish, resentful, discouraged. I knew that most of what he grabbed would have been cheques, and they’d have done him no good. How much cash? Maybe $100, if he was lucky. Plus the $40 that had been given to him… $20 from me… it had been Christmas Eve after all…

 

And then slowly came the realization that I needed to let go of this resentment, because it was twisting me. I needed to forgive the guy, in other words, because one of the things about forgiveness is the way it releases the forgiver from carrying a burden of anger and resentment. I needed to contend with whatever it was that made him think that stealing offering money on Christmas Eve was somehow justified. What kind of desperation was this man living with? And here’s something else I had to think about: he didn’t take it all. He could have. Easily. He could have grabbed both the baskets, and just run. But he didn’t. So what was that about?

 

Again, a stranger had unsettled my judgments. Not in a particularly heart-warming way; it was certainly not the kind of story that would make its way into a Hallmark Christmas movie. But it was still something with which I needed to wrestle.

 

When you really stop and think about it, for all of the poignant beauty that comes with Luke’s telling of the nativity—angels and shepherds, and the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger—it is also a story of judgments being unsettled and assumptions being challenged. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered,” and in Luke’s odd account it is a strange method that the empire implements. Census takers are not sent door to door, but instead the people are required to return to their ancestral homes; not for the first time, nor for the last, are people expected to do what an empire bids, whatever the cost. In Luke’s telling, this makes Joseph and Mary strangers, for though Bethlehem may have been Joseph’s ancestral home, they have no place to stay. She’s pregnant, and will give birth any day now… but empires aren’t troubled by such matters. The stable is the best they can do, and when that baby is born, who is it that comes to visit? Shepherds; themselves strangers of a sort. Hard working people who live out on the land with their flocks, very much on the margins of a society of religious practices and purity codes.

 

From the beginning, you see, Jesus is a stranger. In the very different yet parallel birth story carried in Matthew’s Gospel—a story we will tell when we mark the Feast of the Epiphany a week and a half from tonight—the unsettling nature of this baby comes right to the fore. King Herod, on hearing word from the Magi of a royal birth and desperate to hold onto his own power, orders an infanticide in Bethlehem. He sends death squads in to kill all male children under the age of two. Mary and Joseph escape with their child, ending up as refugees, really, fleeing from Judea into Egypt. Refugees; strangers thrown onto the mercy of any who would give them hospitality.

 

It will continue to be so in his ministry. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” John proclaims in the opening chapter of his Gospel—or as Eugene Peterson freely translates it—“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” He become one with us—in the neighborhood—and he restored and healed and befriended some of the most broken people imaginable, and yet he remained, in a sense, a stranger. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests;” Jesus famously said, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Lk. 9:58) And this stranger who is Jesus steadily challenges assumptions and unsettles judgments—religious, social, even political. Then as now. Whenever a stranger walks through those doors or comes into our various lives—or when we see news reports about things like Syrian families fleeing for their lives—there is this moment where we need to ask, “Okay Jesus, what are you about to show me here?”

 

Have a blessed and peaceful Christmas season. And if into your blessed peace a stranger comes bringing disruption, remember the words spoken by the angel in so many of these stories: “Do not be afraid”. “Do not be afraid,” for this too is all a part of encountering that “good news of great joy for all the people.”

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