"I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing."

Matthew 25:31-46

Preached on Third Sunday of Lent, March 19, 2017

I walked into the room unsure of what to expect.  I knew there would be pastors there, so we had something in common.  But, I had no idea that I would not know anyone else and that I would be the only woman.  As the men who knew each other talked among themselves, I stood alone for awhile feeling like a stranger.

Have you ever had that happen to you?  Standing in a room full of people, but feeling very much alone. 

I’m guessing we’ve all been there, at some time or another.  And it does not feel good. 

After a couple of minutes which seemed like hours, someone came over and said, “hello, my name is Tom. Welcome.  What’s your name?”  I was no longer a stranger.  I was welcomed.  And it felt good.

We’ve all been there.  When someone welcomes us—with a smile, a handshake, an introduction, a name, a word of welcome—we feel like we belong.  And it feels good.

 

Jesus knew how hard it was to be a stranger and how important it is to welcome the stranger. 

And so when he talked to his disciples about the last judgment, he said to the righteous ones,

“Come inherit the kingdom of heaven, for I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

 

Who is the stranger?  Anyone who is different than we are.

On a global level, a stranger can be immigrants and refugees of different ethnicities, fleeing places of violence and war, desperately seeking a welcome to live in safety.

On a national level, a stranger can be people of different races and religions, desperately seeking a welcome to learn equally and to worship freely.

On a local level, a stranger can be people of different sexual orientations and disabilities, desperately seeking a welcome to go to the bathroom safely and to love freely. 

On a personal level, a stranger can be anyone who we notice is left out—by virtue of anything that makes them different—desperately seeking a welcome to belong.  

On a gospel level, it is Christ himself disguised as the stranger, desperately seeking to be recognized.

 

The people said, “Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you? 

Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So how do we do we welcome the stranger in our midst? 

In Meeting Jesus on the Margins, Mike Kinman writes:  The deep truth behind welcoming the stranger is that the very act of welcoming makes the person not a stranger.  The first act of welcoming is the most powerful—sharing names.  When we share names we become human to each other.  And that is the beginning of activating the healing power of love.

Women pastors were strange for Oak Grove Presbyterian Church until they called me—Pastor Donna

Homeless people were strangers to me until I worked in Washington D.C. and met Alvin and Chuck.

Gays were strangers to us.  Until in New Jersey-our new next door neighbors were Chuck and Ben.

Black people were strangers to my kids, until Christian’s best friend in Nashville became Daniel. 

Immigrants from the Middle East were strangers, until we met Rebecca’s soccer coach from Iran, Essy.

Names are so important.  When we know someone’s name, they are no longer different or a stranger.  They are human beings, people with a name and a story worth knowing. 

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  And I was naked and you gave me clothing.” 

Being naked can be someone in need of clothing, but also someone who is different, but without any covering to disguise their difference.  They feel vulnerable and exposed…without a place to belong, without anyone to know their story or even their name. 

“Just as you did it one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

So how do we do we welcome the stranger in our midst?  How do we clothe the naked?  It’s simple:  notice those around you who are being left out, ignored or labeled “the least of these.”  Reach out to them, and welcome them in.  Exchange names.  Try to see Christ in them.  That is the beginning of activating the healing power of love.  And it is powerful.  Prepare to be amazed.

 

A woman shared with me this true story that happened to her recently.  It is amazing! 

Linda was the speaker for her work at an off-site location.  She needed technology to make her presentation work--microphone, computer, projector, and screen, etc.  There was an IT man assigned to help her.  She started by introducing herself and getting his name, and welcoming him warmly. 

She thanked Kurt for his help—even before he started.  As he set up the technology, she talked with him, about his work and his life.  And she listened to what he had to say. 

He said that he was sorry that he couldn’t be there the day before to get organized, but he was off. 

She said, “Hope you were doing something fun.” 

He said, “I was at my aunt’s funeral.  My aunt raised me.  She and I were very close.  I will miss her.” 

Linda shared some words of sympathy and blessing. 

He said, “Oh, that’s ok, I don’t believe in God, never have.  I am a science guy. Hard facts, that all.”

Linda listened, then asked, “well, how was the funeral?” 

Kurt said, “Like any other funeral, I guess.  There were a lot of people.  There was music and words and silence.  But as I sat at her funeral service, I don’t know what happened.  All of a sudden, a strange feeling came over me.  This feeling was warm and comforting, and through it I felt good knowing that my Aunt was with my Uncle in a better place. And I had a deep sense of peace.”

Linda just nodded and listened.

Kurt paused and then he continued, “Wow, that feeling that came over me was so powerful.  It must have been God.  There is a God, isn’t there?”  Linda just smiled and said, “ I believe there is a God.”

He said, “I can’t believe I am talking to you about this.  I don’t even know you, you’re a stranger, and yet you made me feel comfortable telling you.  Thank you for listening and caring.  You helped me realize that there is a God.  Wow!  Thanks.  Well, I better get back to work. And he did.

In Meeting Jesus on the Margins, we are reminded, “When next you find yourself inclined to see someone you don’t know as stranger, take a moment’s pause.  Perhaps wave in greeting.  Perhaps say hello and ask, “How are you?”  A small bit of kindness, a small gesture of welcome, may go a long way—not only for the person you greet but for your own soul.  You may, in fact, begin to find your understanding of neighbor shifting and growing.  You may begin to see and find God in places you did not look before.”  ~Allison Duvall

May it be so.  Amen.