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Love Bade Me Welcome:
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
I know this madman well. And so, I suspect, do some of you. I know him from the inside out and from the outside in. I’ve met him in the land of fear, of loss, of grief. I’ve seen his face in folks I love. A face that haunts me still. We’ve come face to face that madman of the tombs and me—face to face in times of failure and, strange as it may seem, in flush times too.
He scares me—this man possessed by demons and living there among the dead. “What have you to do with me?” I shout at him as if to ward him off. Sometimes it works. He darts away. He’s gone. Sometimes for only a moment and sometimes for a season. Then he returns. Oh how I would love to wall him off, to banish him, to keep that madness, that despair, that raging pain far from my field of vision. “What have you to do with me, you madman of the tombs?”
“What have you to do with me?”—that’s the question the man possessed by demons puts to Jesus. I suspect that question comes from a place deep inside the one whose name is “Legion.” A question born in fear and loss and deep, deep disappointment. “What have you to do with me”—there are so many different ways to ask that question:
--“Why should I believe that you won’t leave me in the tombs just like the others did?”
—“Why should I believe that you won’t disappoint me? I’ve been disappointed so many times already.”
—“Why should I trust you?”
Questions people who’ve been deeply hurt often ask not once but many times.
“What have you to do with me?” children who have been abused ask. They’re calibrating really—calibrating if and how much they dare trust the person reaching out their hand to help.
“What have you to do with me?” people on the streets ask in a host of different ways. And why not—they’ve been rebuffed, walled off, locked up so many times.
“What have you to do with me?” That’s a question folks can put to the Church as well given both actions churches have undertaken and actions churches have supported or condoned.
“What have you to do with me?” There’s another way to put that question. “What claim have you on me?” That’s a question people who live outside the land of tombs ask of those who wander among the dead. “What claim have you on me?” Often those living outside the tombs answer before the voiceless even have a chance to speak. Often those living outside the tombs answer as the people of Gesara answered when they saw the one whom they’d walled off, “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”
They answered from a place of fear those people from Gesara. “Get out of here. Get out of here,” they shout to Jesus. “You have no claim on us,” they might well have said to Him as they had said already to the man living among the tombs. Those townsfolk were afraid—afraid of Jesus and afraid of the one he healed of the demons haunting him. Those townsfolk were afraid that Love just might reorder the way they lived their lives.
“What have you to do with me?” A question we put to the madmen we meet in our lives—madmen living in tombs of grief and despair, of hunger and homelessness, of failure and loss; a question we put to madmen living in the many kinds of otherness we encounter in our world. “What have you to do with me?”
“What have you to do with me?” I ask that madman I know so well. Sometimes she answers with the words, “I am a part of you. You know me very well.” Other times she reminds me that I know her in friends and family, in the walls that darkness and despair, depression and grief throw up. In those moments I remember the claim she has on me. The claim of our shared humanity.
I hear her say to Love himself, “What have you to do with me?”
In Love’s answer I hear echoes of a poem a priest wrote long ago:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.
Sometimes the pain is so great that the question—what have you to do with me—has to be asked and answered time and again before the madman within and without is ready to sit and eat. Ask we must. And answer too. Again and again. For we are followers of Love himself.
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
Did you hear all the God talk these last couple of weeks? In the papers, on TV, over the internet? I bet even talk radio got into the act. There’s been a lot of grist for the mill these past few weeks. The Boy Scouts of America welcoming gay scouts. And right here in Albuquerque a transgendered teen named Damien wanting to graduate from a Catholic high school wearing a black robe like the other boys in his class. No wonder folks have been talking.
Just yesterday I read an article in USA Today about Christian pastors protesting the decision by the Boy Scouts to admit gay scouts to their ranks. One Baptist minister said as he announced that his church would no longer be home to a Boy Scout troop, “We are not willing to compromise God’s word.”
A little over a week ago, the Archbishop of Santa Fe, in his graduation address at Albuquerque’s St. Pius High School, suggested that the school was following Christ by taking “a stand for what is right.” You’ll remember that the stand St. Pius took was to require Damien Garcia to wear the white robe of a girl if he wanted to graduate with his class.
God’s word. Christ’s way. Those are heavy claims. But I wonder. I wonder if those claims are warranted. Those claims that God’s word would exclude a person from a wholesome activity simply because of his sexual orientation or that following Christ’s way includes denying the personhood of teenage boy fly in the face of Biblical tradition.
You and I, we walk in the way, we follow the path, of a God who ministers to strangers—those outside the fold--and of Christ who appears in the face of the stranger. From the book of Genesis to the Letter to the Hebrews, again and again we hear the story of God calling us to welcome, love and not to oppress the strangers in our midst. Again and again we hear stories of God appearing to us in the form of a stranger.
In Genesis, we hear the story of Abraham, who spotting three strangers approaching his tent, says to his wife Sarah, “Bake some cakes. Set the table. We’re having guests.” It’s only later that Abraham and Sarah learn that those strangers are angelos(messengers) of God.
Also in Genesis, we hear the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—towns destroyed not because of sexuality but because instead of welcoming strangers they turned against the strangers in their midst.
In Exodus, in the core of the law passed down from Moses, we hear God saying to the Israelites, “You shall not wrong the stranger...for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And a bit later, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you have known the soul of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “For you have known the soul of the stranger.”
In Leviticus, in the center of what is known as the holiness code, we hear the words “You shall love the stranger as yourself....” That phrase, “love the stranger”, appears at least 36 times in the Hebrew scriptures.
Remember the heroic figures in the Old Testament. Think about the stories on which Jesus was raised. Think about the outsiders and strangers who served as exemplars of the faith. Hagar, the slave, met by God, when she runs away to the wilderness. Moses, a murderer on the run, meeting God in a burning bush. Rahab, a well-known prostitute, a model for following the word of God in welcoming the stranger.
Think about the folks Jesus praised. Think about the ones Jesus healed. Think about the people who helped Jesus grow into the fullness of his ministry. Remember the Samaritan who crossed the road to help a stranger in distress. Samaritans were anathema to Jews. Yet it was the Samaritan who crossed the road. It was the Samaritan who showed mercy. It was the Samaritan whom Jesus praised. And remember the ten lepers whom Jesus healed? Only one turned back and said thanks. The Samaritan. The stranger.
Today we hear the story of the Gentile slave (read stranger) of the Roman centurion (another stranger). Jesus heals the slave and praises the centurion. Remember the Syro-Phonecian woman (another stranger). When she asks Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus insults her. But when she persists and challenges Jesus’ understanding of his own ministry, he heals her daughter and praises her.
There’s more to this Biblical tradition of welcoming the stranger. In the Gospel of Matthew, at the end of his active ministry, Jesus tells the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It’s a parable of judgment. It suggests that we all will be judged on how we treat the sick, the dying, the thirsty, the hungry, the poor, the prisoner, and the stranger whom we meet along the way. To those who will sit at His right hand Jesus says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me....” Then the righteous will say, “Lord when....” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Yet in the midst of all that judgment there’s a curious twist. It’s easy to miss that twist as we focus on feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and caring for the sick. You see, it is in the face of the stranger that we meet God. God is revealed to us in and through and by the stranger in our midst.
There is a thread running through the scriptures. It’s the thread of God being revealed in encounters at the margins. Think of it—it’s in our encounters with strangers that we meet the face of God—God revealed in a Boy Scout troop that welcomes gays; God revealed in the face of teenaged boy determined to graduate in a black gown just like the other boys in his class; God revealed in the individuals and situations that push at the boundaries of our understanding; God who troubles the calm waters of our lives; God in the face of the stranger standing before us. Will we welcom