“Thanksgiving and Welcome”

November 22, 2015


Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Luke 17:11-19


An oppressed people living under unbearable burdens flee for their lives. Running away, ahead of the army, they cross the sea in safety, hoping to find a land of freedom and prosperity.

Members of a hated religion, battling disease and with very little hope, are welcomed and cared for by one who has every reason to fear and reject them.

A despised minority go from one European nation to another, seeking asylum, finding a small boat for a watery crossing on which several, including children, will die before they reach land.

These stories are not current events. They are old, even ancient accounts of refugees and strangers: the Hebrew people in Exodus from Egypt; Samaritan lepers crying out to Jesus; the Congregational Separatists whom we call “Pilgrims.”

These old stories are our stories, our inheritance as those who seek to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us.

We are, of course, dealing with our own crises of refugees and religion and immigration and welcome. Until recently the concern of many in our nation—and the focus of some of the work of our Mission Board—were the refugees from Central and South America, the children and youth coming north, fleeing from the violence of drug cartels.

This summer and fall we started hearing more about refugees trying to escape the violence of civil war and ISIS in Syria. There was a growing sense of compassion—until the terrorist attacks in Paris a week ago.

Then the fear-stoked hysteria began once more.

Look at our own state: the majority of refugees who settle in Iowa come from Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq. They generally come to Iowa because they have family here.

Nevertheless, last Monday Governor Brandstad became one of over twenty governors who are taking action to block efforts to relocate Syrian refugees in their states. While there is much doubt that he had the constitutional or legal authority to do so, our governor ordered state agencies to stop any work on Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks.

Look at our nation: with remarkable speed, by Wednesday of last week, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that would require the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence to confirm that each refugee applicant from Syria and Iraq poses no threat. The bill did not go into specific measures; rather, it said that officials “shall take all actions necessary” for a “thorough” background check. The refugee screening process is already so restrictive that it generally takes a year and half to approve anyone for immigration. Still, on Thursday Representative Loebsack joined in voting to pass that legislation.

In what seemed to pass in these days as some sort of compassion, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush did say they would allow Syrian refugees—but only if they were Christian. No Muslims would be allowed. When reporters asked Governor Bush how refugees could prove that they were Christian, he said it's easy for Christians to prove it.

This led to the one bit of ironic humor in all of this when Stephen Colbert suggested: “If you want to know if somebody is Christian, just ask them to complete this sentence: Jesus said, ‘I was hungry, you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you...’”

If you were listening to the Gospel lesson during worship last week, you might remember that the correct way to complete this sentence is: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Those words of Jesus need to echo in our hearts in the weeks ahead, but many seem to have forgotten them.

Scripture reminds us that forgetting is natural, if dangerous, human response. And if we are going to find within us the compassion and the wisdom that is needed for these days, we will be helped by finding our place within those stories of thanksgiving and welcome that we hear in scripture.

We stand with the Hebrew people, led out of slavery in Egypt by Moses, ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses tells them that it is “a good land, a land with flowing streams, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.”

With them we see a vision of God’s good creation. With them we are encouraged to receive the good things that God provides, to enjoy the fruit of our labor, and to be prosperous people.

The danger of prosperity, however—and you know this—the danger of prosperity is forgetfulness.

It is not that prosperity and flourishing are bad in and of themselves. All too quickly, however, we can move from the position of faith in God that says “all I have, I have received from God” to the faith in ourselves that claims: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

And why not? After all, most people here work hard and work long hours. We expect great things from ourselves and for ourselves. We save. We make good investments. So it seems to be just a little healthy self-esteem that forgets the warning of Moses and announces: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

This is the great danger of prosperity. We forget.

In 1863, at a time when people in this country knew death and destruction and fear first hand. Abraham Lincoln told the people:

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years …; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

Time has not eroded the power of those words.

The danger of forgetfulness always lurks amidst prosperity.

The solution is thanksgiving: “Remember the Lord your God, for it is God who give you power to get wealth.” In your prosperity, look around. Begin by giving thanks, not for what you have, but for the God who gave you the ability to get the wealth you enjoy. Remember that it is a gift. It is, all of it, a gift.

We look at and listen to those ten lepers once more.

They stand back as Jesus approaches and cry out in their need: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Mercy is not some vague “spiritual” concept. Mercy is a concrete act that involves us in healing, forgiveness, and restoration.

According to Luke, Jesus meets their need for mercy, for healing. They go as they are told and do as they are told. They discover on their way that they are healed.

That’s a pretty good story.

It reminds us that God’s care for us is given freely. Very often our needs are met—not because of our faith, not because of the many fine and noble things that we have done—but simply because of God’s grace. That is to say, we get more than we deserve and it comes to us as a gift.

As we listen to this story, perhaps we remember that we do have housing and clothes and food and work and money. Many times our needs for understanding and friendship and faith have been filled. We, too, have stood by the side of the road, crying out in our brokenness. And our cries were heard.

Look and listen—and we are there as well.

We come looking for mercy.

We go as we are told.

And we discover a new wholeness in our lives, in our selves.

Only then, when we have acknowledged our own brokenness, our own need, will we be able to give thanks. Again, that’s not our natural mode—thanksgiving. That’s not our usual response.

Usually we forget.

So for one day we stop the buying and the selling—for the most part. We stop the family bickering—for the most part. We remember that we are the heirs of a glorious and troubled past, living in a troubled and sometimes fearful present. And we give thanks that we have come this far by grace, sheer grace.

We give thanks that when we are empty, God fills us. When we are strangers, God welcomes us. And with some slight echo of gratitude in our hearts we might go forward with some modicum of compassion for refugees, for the homeless, for the hungry.

That is to say, that in giving thanks we might become people of grace, people who, once healed and restored, return and say thank-you. We might find our place with Hebrew slaves, with Samaritan lepers, with Pilgrims, with Syrian refugees, with all the wretched of the earth and in doing so we might become more open to those who, like us, bear in themselves the very image of God.

We forget that other people of other nations, other faiths, also bear the image of God. And in doing so it sometimes seems as though we are walking right in to what counterterrorism expert Harleen Gambhir called the Islamic State’s “trap.” She tells us “The Islamic State’s strategy is to polarize Western society—to “destroy the grayzone,” as it says in its publications. The group hopes frequent, devastating attacks in its name will provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims—that we will see them as less than human, not like us—thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent.” French authorities believe that the planting of a fake Syrian passport was done exactly to provoke such a backlash against refugees and the Muslim population in general.

Now here’s the point: you don’t need me to simply stand up here and tell you about some news items that you can read in the New York Times or the Press-Citizen.

That’s not why you came here today. You came here because you want to hear the good news of God’s love for of all creation, all people, all nations. You came because you want to be reminded that in Jesus Christ and in those who do follow in the way of Jesus Christ, God’s love can and will be made known.

This is good news.

Thankful people return to the source of the goodness that they have found.

Maybe we can come back with a few words of thanksgiving of our own.

Maybe we can show that thanksgiving by welcoming others who are rejected, despised, and suspect. We can and should do these things.

I am not—I should be clear about this—I am not suggesting unprotected borders or no screening of people who enter this country. But as it is now, it takes a year and a half for refugees to gain entrance into the United States. That’s time enough for checking, for waiting. That’s time enough for suffering, for dying.

What we need to do is show some basic Christian love, some basic Christian decency.

On Thursday we will gather in homes, in restaurants, in cities and in the countryside. We will gather with family and friends, however close, however strained, however tense. Let us do so rejoicing. Let us come to these places with gratitude in our hearts for all the good that we have received—not from our own strength, not from the strength of our hands or the vast knowledge of our minds but from the good and generous hand and loving heart of God. And let us go from those places and that day seeking to be a little more like the One whom we choose to follow: welcoming, receiving, healing, even astonished by the gratitude that we discover in others.

Let us recognize in one another our common humanity, that we all bear the image of our Creator and live in gratitude for that. In doing so, may we rise from our tables as better people with more open hearts to take on the challenges that are before us now.