Did you hear all the God talk these last couple of weeks? In the papers, on TV, over the internet? I bet even talk radio got into the act. There’s been a lot of grist for the mill these past few weeks. The Boy Scouts of America welcoming gay scouts. And right here in Albuquerque a transgendered teen named Damien wanting to graduate from a Catholic high school wearing a black robe like the other boys in his class. No wonder folks have been talking.
Just yesterday I read an article in USA Today about Christian pastors protesting the decision by the Boy Scouts to admit gay scouts to their ranks. One Baptist minister said as he announced that his church would no longer be home to a Boy Scout troop, “We are not willing to compromise God’s word.”
A little over a week ago, Archbishop Sheehan, in his graduation address at Albuquerque’s St. Pius High School suggested that the school was following Christ by taking “a stand for what is right.” You’ll remember that the stand St. Pius took was to require Damien Garcia to wear the white robe of a girl if he wanted to graduate with his class.
God’s word. Christ’s way. Those are heavy claims. But I wonder. I wonder if those claims are warranted. Those claims that God’s word would exclude a person from a wholesome activity simply because of his sexual orientation or that following Christ’s way includes denying the personhood of teenage boy fly in the face of Biblical tradition.
You and I, we walk in the way, we follow the path, of a God who ministers to strangers—those outside fold–and of Christ who appears in the face of the stranger. From the book of Genesis to the Letter to the Hebrews, again and again we hear the story of God calling us to welcome, love and not to oppress the strangers in our midst. Again and again we hear stories of God appearing to us in the form of a stranger.
In Genesis, we hear the story of Abraham, who spotting three strangers approaching his tent, says to his wife Sarah, “Bake some cakes. Set the table. We’re having guests.” It’s only later that Abraham and Sarah learn that those strangers are angelos(messengers) of God.
In Exodus, in the core of the law passed down from Moses, we hear God saying to the Israelites, “You shall not wrong the stranger…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And a bit later, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you have known the soul of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “For you have known the soul of the stranger.”
In Leviticus, in the center of what is known as the holiness code, “You shall love the stranger as yourself….” That phrase, “love the stranger”, appears at least 36 times in the Hebrew scriptures.
Think about the heroic figures in the Old Testament. Think about the stories on which Jesus was raised. Think about the outsiders and strangers who served as exemplars of the faith. Hagar, the slave, met by God, when she runs away to the wilderness. Moses, a murderer on the run, meeting God in a burning bush. Rahab, a well-known prostitute, a model for following the word of God.
Think about the folks Jesus praised. Think about the ones Jesus healed. Think about the people who helped Jesus grow into the fullness of his ministry. Remember the Samaritan who crossed the road to help a stranger in distress. Samaritans were anathema to Jews. Yet was the Samaritan who crossed the road. It was the Samaritan who showed mercy. It was the Samaritan whom Jesus praised. And remember the ten lepers whom Jesus healed? Only one turned back and said thanks. The Samaritan. The stranger.
Today we hear the story of the Gentile slave (read stranger) of the Roman centurion (another stranger). Jesus heals the slave and praises the centurion. Remember the Syro-Phonecian woman (another stranger). When she asks Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus insults her. But when she persists and challenges Jesus’ understanding of his own ministry, he heals her daughter and praises her. Do you hear the echoes? Echoes of strangers, outsiders pushing the boundaries?
There’s more to this Biblical tradition of welcoming the stranger. In the Gospel of Matthew, at the end of his active ministry, Jesus tells the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It’s a parable of judgment. It suggests that we all will be judged on how we treat the sick, the dying, the thirsty, the hungry, the poor, the prisoner, and the stranger whom we meet along the way. To those who will sit at His right hand Jesus says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world 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….” Then the righteous will say, “Lord when….” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Yet in the midst of all that judgment there’s a curious twist. It’s easy to miss that twist as we focus on feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and caring for the sick. You see, it is in the face of the stranger that we meet God. God is revealed to us in and through and by the stranger in our midst.
There is a thread running through the scriptures. It’s the thread of God being revealed in encounters at the margins. Think of it—it’s in our encounters with strangers that we meet the face of God—God revealed in a Boy Scout troop that welcomes gays; God revealed in the face of teenaged boy determined to graduate in a black gown just like the other boys in his class; God revealed in the individuals and situations that push at the boundaries of our understanding; God who troubles the calm waters of our lives; God in the face of the stranger standing before us. Will we welcome the stranger?