“Thanksgiving and Welcome”
November 22, 2015
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
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
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
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
In 1863, at a time when people in this
country knew death and destruction and fear first hand. Abraham Lincoln told
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
The danger of forgetfulness always lurks
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
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.
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
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
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.