Sermon: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (C), January 31, 2016 Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Clearwater, FL
The Rev. Randall Hehr
I was about nineteen years old and a student at St. Petersburg Junior College when my friends said to me, “Come on, we are driving to New York City for the weekend.” It was a great adventure and a whirlwind visit! I had just enough time before we left to contact the musician at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to secure an opportunity to hear the magnificent organ in that great space. Our visit to the Cathedral was the high point of our trip. The three of us found the Cathedral in the Morning Side Heights area of Manhattan, and made our way inside to behold a nave that stretches 601 feet from the High Altar to the West Doors.
Our arrival time was planned to correspond with the end of visitors’ hours. The Cathedral musician, Alec Wyton, told me to wait until the building was empty before playing the organ. He also said to be mindful of the group that meets in the side chapel. As you may know, numerous small chapels line the sides of the building. As the crowds were exiting and the quiet settled in, I heard that group in the side chapel. They were Buddhists chanting. I was mesmerized. Never in my life had I imagined that there was room in the Episcopal Church for Buddhists or for any other non-Christian religious group.
As a recent convert to the Episcopal Church, I sat in the darkness and listened. In those sacred moments, I discovered something of the mystery of God: an expansive God; a wondrous God; a God of infinite possibilities. In the darkness I imagined the Holy One with arms extended, embracing the world.
The Gospels share this truth; the truth about our ever-embracing Lord who reaches to the outsider. Last Sunday we heard Jesus proclaim his mission statement in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16f). We heard him speak about bringing good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. We heard him say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This statement alone would have given his friends and family pause for concern. But the words we hear from Luke’s Gospel today raised the shock index for Jesus’ listeners considerably (Luke 4:23f). Jesus challenges them to see how God works in ever-expanding circles. Jesus challenges them to see how God works in the lives of “outsiders.”
What made this crowd so angry that they rose up against him? Jesus made it clear that God’s love, God’s care, and God’s grace are extended to foreigners. Think about it today. God’s love extends to the person outside our safe “container.”
Deep in our Judeo-Christian heritage is the sacred teaching about the stranger. The stranger finds his or her way into our midst. The stranger knocks at our door and is hungry. The stranger is seeking the Holy One. Our heritage and tradition is clear: there is a sacred duty to open ourselves to the stranger. Read the story in Genesis 18:1-15 of Abraham and Sarah as they opened themselves to the three divine visitors who passed by their tent. Abraham went running to greet them and hurried to ask Sarah to prepare a meal. Listen carefully to these words, because in our 21st century fear and caution, we might just miss this amazing truth so clearly proclaimed: the stranger, unknown and sometimes mysterious, brings a blessing. This was true for Sarah who bore her first child after that mysterious visit. Be watchful for the stranger; look into his or her eyes. In seeing the stranger, we are looking into the face of the Christ. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
I am going to pause here for a moment to take a breath. I ask you to wonder with me, “What do Muslims think about the stranger who comes into their midst?” Today I offer a testimony for you that comes from my own experience. For in the past few weeks, I have come to know Mohsen Shaker and his wife, Hanna, and their two adult children, Mohammed and Miriam. They were introduced to me by Al Hall, the chaplain at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. When we first started talking, they invited me to their home. Twice I have accompanied them to the mosque in Pinellas Park for Friday afternoon prayers. Both times I have been greeted warmly and with great hospitality. Christianity and Islam share a common heritage. We share our history of the prophets. On these two Fridays, the men and women have thanked me over and over again for coming to their community. As I have listened to their tradition of chant and prayer, I have felt that same sense of the holiness of God that touched my soul so many years ago at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I have observed their postures for prayer and have been moved to watch them bend so low that their foreheads touch the floor.
I share this testimony today because of our guests who will be here later this morning. I encourage you to welcome our peaceful Islamic brothers and sisters. I know that we will not all see things the same way. We live in a world that Paul might say is loud with noisy gongs and clashing cymbals. In the midst of the noise, let us be listeners. Saint Benedict taught that listening is a first act of hospitality. Let us be listeners and be prepared to be surprised by what we learn and discover. I think of Holy Trinity as a learning community. Today I am mindful of the words you have used to describe Holy Trinity: we are welcoming, loving and serving.
In a world so divided by conflict and so torn by war, today I hear our Lord saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” It was Gandhi who said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Our Western spiritual tradition gives us the marvelous capacity to look honestly within ourselves and claim the peace that passes all understanding. In God’s eyes, there is a still more excellent way: the way of Love.