Today at Bethany is a day of ‘“welcoming.” A day of meeting the Imdad family, immigrants from Afghanistan, that this congregation decided to sponsor and welcome to the US, as they make that transition into a new life here in Sacramento. “Decided” is probably too definitive a word. Better to say that through a succession of events, we found ourselves led to opening our doors to the stranger. To the immigrant, to the refugees. That series of events began many years ago, when we welcomed Vietnamese families coming here in the years after the end of the Vietnam war. For those of us who were here then, we remember that Rev. Ninh Nguyen came to Rev. Alan Phelp asking to start a Bible study for the newly arrived Vietnamese people. And that small seed of welcome grew into not only Grace Community Church, the Southeast Asian Assistance Center, but friends who became family.
Another event that led to this day was Rev. Lori Sprinkle’s friendship with a director at World Relief which led to four Middle Easter Refugees speaking one evening at The Gathering’s storytelling event, and a Middle Eastern dinner being prepared and served as a gift to us.
We also have right here at Bethany people from other places - places like Puerto Rico, Columbia, Canada, Scotland, HongKong, Mexico, and on into the far corners of this world. Our families of origin come from all over, our children have moved or married into other cultures, and we have friends here who travel extensively and understand the richness of meeting people from faraway during their world travels.
So our welcoming of the Imdad family comes from many years of growing into a faith that teaches love and hospitality to the stranger. From God’s Law given to Moses came the words: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt,” to the words of Christ when speaking of the judgment of nations: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Years of learning not only welcoming another, but experiencing what it means to be welcomed ourselves when we were the traveler or the immigrant.”
Today’s scripture is a story of what Jesus and his disciples encountered when they took their ministry away from Capernaum and on a new route. Beginning with a trip to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. This might not seem at first as anything different or unusual. After all, Israel is a small country. But sometimes it’s not just the geographical distance that makes something different. We’re just a few generations away from many, many people who never really traveled far from their hometown or their home county. After I moved to California from a small East Texas town that went back 5 generations of my ancestors, I became somewhat a foreigner to some people back home. I was asked questions like: “Are Californians really different, like we think they are?” My great aunt used to tease me when I came home by asking me whether I still lived far away in California? And when I answered yes, she would laugh and tell me that she went to Melrose once. Melrose was a small hamlet where her grandparents had lived, 8 miles east of her own home. That was the joke, one that spoke truth. Melrose was a long journey.
Well, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth and amazed people with his wisdom, until they discovered that this is the hometown boy who moved away. He was no longer just the hometown boy, but somehow seemed beyond the knowledge contained within the city limits. Then he became suspect, and not so accepted. But the scripture tells us that this didn’t deter Jesus. He healed whom he could, and he continued to teach.
What’s more, he set an example to his disciples of what it means to continue on with what God has called them to do, even if if there should be some setbacks. So Mark has written a Gospel, as Will said last week, where often two stories are put together to show something deeper than any one of the stories. In this case, we have the story of Jesus sending his disciples out, two by two, to carry on the ministry of teaching and healing in other places. Jesus instructs them to not pack too much to carry with them. For they are to depend on the hospitality and the welcome of those that they will meet on their journey. He tells them they will find some who will not welcome, but there will be others who do. Don’t be discouraged by this, he says. Just keep going and doing what God has called you to do.
I think it’s important for us on this day to realize that this story is not just about Jesus and the disciples. It’s also about the unnamed people that they will meet along their way. There will be the people who welcome them, and there will be those who do not. Whether from fear of what is not familiar, or simply no interest in learning about those who are the stranger. We, each of us, whether as individuals, or as a community, make those choices. We choose whether or not to open our lives to the blessings of faith that can come when we open our hearts.
Many years ago, when I was 14, and growing up in that small town of East Texas, I began to learn an important lesson of friendship. I had learned at an early age, during the years of WWII, that there were suspicious strangers to stay away from. One of those was a German woman, with a heavy accent, who owned a service station not far from where I lived. Some people there, my family being one, suspected she might be a German spy, sending shortwave messages to Germany and the enemy.
So it happened that in the fall of 1956, at age 14, I was living in a town that had a recent history of fear of strangers. My older brother was 16, and that fall a new family moved to town. They probably were the first people who ever moved to town from California. In that “foreign family” there was young 16 year old Tom - tall, blond, very intelligent, and with the audacity to announce to the other kids that he was an atheist. Maybe it was agnostic. Whatever it was, it was words no child in Nacogdoches would ever speak aloud to anyone. We all went to church somewhere. And as far from the norm that anyone would ever say, would be to say they were Catholic.
As providence would have it, Tom soon became my older brother’s best friend, and ended up visiting our home continually. Never mind that my mother suspected that his family might be communist spies, being from California and all, and perhaps more importantly that Tom’s mother’s name was Alberta and his father’s Albert. Something that seemed so coincidental that surely it was a code name for their spy activities. Tom’s father actually worked for an engineering industry in town. But in spite of my mother’s suspicions, there was no stopping the friendship of two teenage boys, and the love that grew up out of that friendship. In the last years of my mother’s life, Tom was the friend from long ago, who kept in touch with my mother, sending her letters from his home in Australia, and telling me on one of his visits, that his fondest memories from those years were the times he spent at the old house where we lived, eating the simple plain food that my mother and grandmother cooked every day of our lives.
One of the richest treasures of my young life, and for my family, happened because two 16 years old boys found a friendship, a love, that went way beyond any small differences that existed between their faith and the lands of their origins.
I think the scripture today is a story about Jesus and his disciples, who take their faith, their belief of God’s Kingdom of love, and go out into their world to share that with others. Trusting that there would be some people who would welcome the strangers, and share their homes and their food and their friendship.
May God bless the new family that is in our midst. And may God bless our congregation as we live into the blessings that emerge as a people of welcome and hospitality.