In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m reminded of a simple phrase that I heard over and over again a few years ago while traveling through Palestine. Whenever my colleagues and I would enter a shop or a restaurant or a home, the same few words would be said to us each time: “You are welcome here.”
It was jarring to my Western ears. I was used to “good morning” or “hello” or even sometimes “welcome”, but there was something about turning that one word - “welcome” - into a full sentence that made it seem somehow more declarative. The welcome seemed less like a perfunctory greeting and more like a real statement of fact: “You are welcome here.” Period. No questions asked.
Then the host would invariably offer us sweet and stout Arabic coffee and chairs for us to sit a while and talk. There were no “secret shoppers” in Palestine. It wasn’t enough to browse or even to buy. We were expected to build relationships. It was part of the ritual of being (or welcoming) a stranger.
The greeting might have been a quirk of language - most of the people that we met were native speakers of Arabic, not English, so maybe that jarring phrase just arose out of some translation from an Arabic greeting. But part of me wondered if it wasn’t just language.
There’s an ancient history in the Middle East of providing hospitality to the stranger. As those trade routes linking the East and the West grew out of the deserts few would have survived were it not for the hospitality of strangers. Travelers could not depend on a spray of Holiday Inns and Super 8s across the region. When they needed hospitality, they knocked on doors. And it was widely understood that if someone knocked on your door, you opened it and helped your guest however you could - because you might be a traveler someday yourself.
To be a stranger is to be, at least in part, vulnerable: out of place, not in the know. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Whether it’s a first day at school, or moving to a new town, or a new job, or even a new church, we’ve all felt what it’s like to stand on the outside of a community looking in. It takes nerves of steel and it always involves risk.
What would it be like if every time we found ourselves as strangers, we were received as welcome guests? Not just with perfunctory “hellos” but with genuine words of welcome then married with actions to demonstrate that the welcome was real.
It’s been said that Christ came, not to make us better Christians, but to make us better humans. I learned a bit about how to be a better human from these mostly Muslim shopkeepers and hosts - all of a race that our culture has taught us to fear. We were about as foreign from one another as any could have been, but together we found humanity.
What would it be like if we - the church - made that kind of welcome our policy? What would it be like if, instead of perfunctory greetings, we offered people opportunities to build relationships?
Too often the church is so concerned with self-preservation that it can’t imagine, much less offer, real welcome. Too often churches’ welcomes come with strings attached. ‘You’re welcome if you come from the right background.’ ‘You’re welcome if you bring the right connections or gifts.’ ‘You’re welcome if you’re just like us, or at least willing to become just like us.’
Too often we welcome people so we can try to change them, but that’s not the gospel. We welcome people not to change them, but out of our hope that they will change us.
All people bring gifts. All people come pre-endowed with God’s love and support. It’s not our job to mold them into people who are worthy of God’s love, because they already have it. No questions asked.
It’s our job to welcome them, not just with our words, but with our actions: to fold them into the community of Christ; to build relationships; to let them change a bit of who we are; to meet their vulnerability with a bit of our own.
The Palestinians I met changed me. I think, perhaps, I changed them, too. We learned from each other about our cultures and we dispelled the myths that had been taught to us.
Those kinds of communities - the ones that spring up between strangers - are the only things that ever do change us. My culture had taught me that they were the incarnation of evil and enemy, but real incarnation had shown me that they were friends. Real incarnation had shown me that they were good.
It’s important that God came to us as Christ. God came as a human being, humbly born - a vulnerable stranger seeking welcome.
And that’s how God always comes.
It’s in those moments of incarnation that we find God; and, it’s in welcoming the strangers among us that we find real moments of incarnation.
The world teaches us to build walls and find divisions and draw lines. But God has drawn all of us in. God has shown our divisions to be illusory. God has laid down our walls so that we might use them as bridges.
God has welcomed us.
Now we are called to welcome God. Amen.