Sunday, July 04, 2010

Today's Sermon: Deut 10:17-21 “Circle of Hospitality”

My brother and sister in law are on their way home again from 6 years working in the Middle East. Chuck has been the dean of a branch of a university there; Leslie has been the dean’s wife, with all that entails. Much entertaining, much helping new visiting professors and their families settle in, much work in the larger expatriate community. As with any work like this out of one’s own country, it has often been more exhausting than similar work back home would be. I spent a month with them while I was doing a research project at the Anglican church there and got a taste of it. Driving in a place where there are almost no street signs and where everyone drives very large, very expensive cars very very fast…figuring out how to get the groceries one needs…finding medical help when necessary…even getting replacement contact lenses or cell phone is a job and a half.

In the midst of the stress living in such a different place, though, there are moments of grace. The kindness and hospitality of some of the local folks, as well as that of other expatriates who have been there for a long time and know the ropes, can help make a rough day infinitely better. A pleasant conversation with a vendor who has come to know you after only two or three visits to his shop is a delight. And the help that people extend to you goes a long way towards making the daily challenges seem not so important.

I noticed after Chuck and Leslie had been in Qatar a relatively short time that they were working hard to welcome other expatriates, and were developing friendships with Qataris with whom they came in contact. They were studying Arabic, although neither of them would claim that they are fluent – it’s a very difficult language. They were recognizing and respecting local customs and were reveling in this new life. Well, they were reveling in it a lot of the time, if not ALL the time.

When you’re a guest in another place, you have a choice. You can be awfully homesick and compare everything to home – we had a foreign exchange student one year who followed that path for the entire year, saying how much better everything in Germany was compared to the United States – or you can appreciate the things that are wonderful in that new place, while still cherishing home.

And you can especially appreciate those moments of hospitality, of welcome, that you receive as a guest. For me, the welcome Doug and I received here in Richmond helped get us through the chaotic first few weeks here. Having folks pop their heads into my office and ask “How are you doing?” and “Boy, this office looks nice!” all reminded me that I was being welcomed and that everyone recognized that it would take a while for me to settle in. The welcome basket that Kathy Jimerson and Shirley Hughson brought while the movers were carting our furniture through the door, the conversations I have had with Herb Williams and other members of the Vestry, the tomatoes and zucchini and cucumbers fresh from parishioners’ gardens…all of these things have helped us revel in our new life here at Epiphany.

The move from Alexandria to Richmond hasn’t been as much of a shock to the system as Chuck and Leslie’s, going from Pittsburgh to the Middle East, but it has meant some changes, not all of which have gone smoothly. What eased the path, though, was that welcome, the little things as well as the big ones, that helped in so many ways. Hospitality to someone you didn’t know – that has been what has made it possible for us to feel at home very quickly.

And hospitality is something that God expects of us, isn’t it? God tells the people in our Old Testament reading today “you shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The ancient people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, of course. God’s words to them were a reminder to never forget what it feels like to be a stranger, to always treat the stranger – the sojourner is the word in more Biblical language – as an honored guest. The rule is a simple one; treat the stranger who visits you more graciously than you were treated as a stranger.

For most of us in this church today, we come from people who came to these shores as strangers. My forebears came here from Russia and Ireland. Doug’s came from Sweden – he just found out, by the way, that one of his forebears was actually an illegal immigrant – imagine that! But our families found a place in this nation, whose birthday we remember today. Those who founded this nation came here as immigrants themselves, and many of them came because of religious restrictions in their homeland. Thus, when they drew up the foundational documents of this country – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – respect for differences was imbedded into their work. That is why they were so careful to separate church and state, so different faiths could worship without the dominance of a State Church. That is why they were so adamant about providing a place where people of differing views could have equal voice, after having had no voice in the British realm. And that is, at its heart, a form of hospitality that comports with what God himself told the people in Deuteronomy. Remember the stranger, and treat that stranger as you would like to be treated yourself, because you were once a stranger. Do not forget what it felt like to be treated inhospitably, and don’t repeat that.

On this day when we celebrate the independence of our great country, let us remember that we, or our parents, or our grandparents, or forebears going back further than that, were once strangers, and let the hospitality that we show to the stranger among us be as generous as God’s love and care for us, and greater than that which they may have been shown when they first arrived on these shores.

For Chuck and Leslie, the hospitality they received when they first got to Qatar and that they offered to others once they were settled in turned full circle as they were about to leave. They wanted to have a final celebratory dinner together at the rooftop restaurant of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It’s a wonderful restaurant with a panoramic view of the capital city of Doha, and it had been a favorite during their time there. Alas, when Leslie called to make the reservation she discovered that the restaurant was closed for the summer – in the summer heat, most of the expatriates leave town and there aren’t enough customers to support keeping the restaurant open. So that night they went to the restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel for dinner. But the maitre d’ said, “Madam, please follow me.” He took them up on the elevator to the top floor where the rooftop restaurant was. Leslie thought they were just giving her the opportunity to enjoy that great view one last time, but there in the silent empty restaurant, there was a table for two set up, with a lit candle, a waiter at the ready to bring them whatever they wanted. Chuck and Leslie had their lovely final dinner there, a gift of the hotel employees who had gotten to know them both because of the many times they had entertained there, and because of the gracious friendliness they showed the staff there.

Hospitality does come full circle. It comes first from our gracious God, comes next from those who welcome us, flows from us to the next stranger we meet, flows on from them to the next person. God smiles as this circle of welcome continues on its path. This is God’s way. May it be the American way, in this community and beyond these walls. And may God bless these United States of America.