THIRTEENTH SUNDAY, YEAR A JUNE 26, 2005 Sam Gioia
II KINGS 4:8-11, 14-16a ROMANS 6:3-4, 8-11 MATTHEW 10:37-42 “Hospes venit, Christus venit”. A stranger comes, Christ comes. This saying was incorporated into the Rule of St. Benedict and we often find it on signs at Benedictine monastaries: “Let every stranger be received as Christ himself”. And today we sing, “Let us build a house where love can dwell, where all can safely live.” These themes run through our three scripture readings today. Indeed they are a kind of charter a faith community. In our first reading a woman from the city of Sunem literally builds a house for a visiting holy man from a different country. Or at least she adds to her existing house. Our reading gives us a small piece of a larger story in which the prophet Elisha and this unnamed woman are drawn deeply into a mutual relationship of justice and love. This compassionate woman offers Elisha meals when he travels through town. This is not enough for her and she urges her husband to build an extra room for Elisha to use. Moved by her generosity he announces that she is pregnant even though she has already accepted that she will have no family. Years later the woman’s son dies and Elisha takes him back from death and returns him to his mother. Still later Elisha warns the woman of an upcoming famine in the land and tells her to leave her country for the sake of her own survival. She becomes a migrant and stranger relying on the hospitality of others. This beautiful story tells of two people, strangers by nationality and religion, who recognize God in each other, and offer welcome and protection. It is the making of a community (koinonia) and a model for our community life: A stranger comes, Christ comes. Today Jesus sends out his disciples to preach, to heal, to raise the dead, to cast out demons. They have been told not to accept payment for their deeds, but to expect hatred and persecution. They will have no family in their travels, only the blessed few who will welcome them, these traveling prophets. Paul’s letter to the Romans today repeats the passage we used at our baptismal liturgy. He reminds us that all people are born anew as children of God. Paul believes Jews and Gentiles, thought to be strangers and enemies, are now joined together in a common faith. As Paul writes this letter to the Romans he is about to complete his highest ambition. He has taken up a collection from his Gentile house churches in Greece and Asia Minor to support Jewish Christian households in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Christians were poor and persecuted, denied access to work and livelihood because of their determination to follow the teachings of Jesus. For Paul this donated money represents a grand vision of Gentile and Jew united by compassion and faith to form a world church of male and female, Jew and Greek, rich and poor, slave and free. In Christ’s love we are all family.
These readings are among my favorites in the entire three year cycle of the Catholic lectionary that we follow. I also love these passages so dearly because they speak eloquently to the work I have immersed myself in these last five years assisting refugees. Now I see God in the immigrant everywhere I go. I am continually moved beyond words by the stories of immigrants. Through their stories I have come to understand my own faith more clearly. Two years ago I was at the Red Cross donating blood. The woman drawing my blood had an interesting accent so I asked her about it. She said she was from Bosnia and had been here for two years. As I reflected on her current job and her relatively recent relocation I said, “You’re a doctor aren’t you?” She was surprised and nodded yes. Her husband was trained as an engineer and now works in a bakery. I asked if her family came with her and she said yes. But then she said very sadly, “My husband’s family—they’re all gone”. When my donation was finished I said, “Thank you, Doctor”. And she could not reply. She only nodded. No one has seen God. We can only know God as she appears to us in the sacrament of the stranger. We welcome the stranger not because it is nice to do or even because it is just. We welcome the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, because it is the only way we will know God. A stranger comes, Christ comes. We come from a long history of exiles in a strange lands. Think of the Jews in Egypt, Elisha in Sunem, the disciples sent out to preach by Jesus, Paul among the Gentiles. In the Bible God often comes in the form of the stranger. Even Jesus was unknown, unrecognized, and scoffed at. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”, people asked. And today people seem to ask, “Can anything good come from a mosque?” “Can anything good come from a Mexican?” Migrant families live on about half the income of the average American family. Two of every five children born into undocumented families live in poverty. More than half of children of these families will never graduate high school. Only one in five undocumented children ever gets to college. They do not even qualify for federal college loans because of their undocumented status. In many states like Oregon they have to pay out of state tuition rates no matter how long they have lived here because they are not here legally. So think about it, the child of a migrant worker has to pay twice as much as you or I for a college education with no access to loans or financial aid. The woman I love was born into this kind of family. From the time she was small her family told her she could be an attorney. Most of her teachers saw a bean-picker who could only speak broken English. he worked twice as hard as anyone else and endured one humiliation after another. Yet she found a few people who recognized her for her ability and character rather than the color of her skin or where her parents were born. She became an attorney, a teacher, and now a school administrator where she helps immigrant children complete their education. The most vulnerable immigrants in our country—the refugees, the migrants, and the undocumented—do the most difficult and dangerous work in our country for the lowest wages. Virtually every scrap of food that you eat was picked, cleaned, or packaged by an immigrant. Even the bread that we break at this table and the wine that we drink come from the labor of our brothers and sisters from other countries.
The least we can do is offer warmth, welcome, and recognition for those whose faces, languages, and customs are different from our own. Offer compassion and understanding to the person in the deli, the janitor who cleans your office, the person in the restaurant who washes your dishes. They could tell you of persecution or famine. They could tell you of years of struggle. And they could also speak of the sheer joy of family and the beauty of those who accepted them. Last year I saw the movie, “Winged Migration”. I was amazed at the journey of millions of birds across seas and rivers and open land. The narration reminded me that it is natural for many species to migrate toward places of food and shelter. I cannot help but wonder why the journey to safety and survival is so natural for other species but denied to human beings by other humans. And why is it that we let corporations travel across the globe to find cheap labor and favorable environmental conditions but we won’t let workers cross those same borders to seek just working conditions and reasonable wages? And I am reminded of a child’s letter to God: “Dear God, who drew the lines around the countries?” Certainly not God. The story of the exile, the stranger is our story. In ancient Palestine the homes of extended family were clustered in a circle with an open courtyard and cooking oven shared among them while the backs of the houses were turned against outsiders. The disciples of Jesus left the circle of their own families hoping for invitation into someone else’s circle. Their very survival depended on it. Who is my mother? Who is father and brother and sister to me? Where is home and country? It is with those who share the journey. It is those who offer comfort and shelter, open their hearts when our paths intersect. “Those who receive you receive me”. It is a rare and beautiful thing to encounter God in the sacrament of the stranger. No one has ever seen God yet God is right next to us. A stranger comes, Christ comes.
The demographics of immigration are based on a study by the Pew Hispanic Research Center published in June 2005. For the full document, see pewhispanic.org The reference to households in ancient Palestine comes from A Social-Science commentary On The Synoptic Gospels, Second Edition by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Fortress Press, 2003)