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Church of the Larger Fellowship Worship Service, General Assembly 2010
General Assembly 2010 Event 3057
Growing In Love: Beyond Tolerance to Loving the Stranger
Preachers Revs. Abhi Janamanchi and Gail Geisenhainer with musicians Sarah Dan Jones, Allison Halerz and Unitarian Universalist Musician Network friends offer encouragement and challenge for living into our aspirations. All are fully welcome for this rousing once-a-year worship gathering of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
Loving The Stranger
Homily by Rev. Abhi Janamanchi
"Come, come, whoever you are..." is one of my favorite hymns, especially the version which includes the line, "Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times, come yet again come." The words are adapted from a poem by the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi.  The hymn captures quite simply and powerfully the ancient religious virtue at the heart of many religious traditions, including ours—hospitality of the heart and hand.
Hospitality is an ancient virtue, yes. Yet it is a virtue which is needed more than ever before in a world infected by visceral fears of the other, the stranger, the immigrant.
Diverse religious traditions teach us to welcome our brothers and sisters with love and compassion.
The Qur’an tells us that we should “serve God... and do good to... orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, and those who have nothing (4:36).
The Torah tells us: “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19: 33-34).
In the New Testament, Jesus asks us to welcome the stranger for “What you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me” (Mathew 25:40).
And the Hindu Upanishads say, "Athidi Devo Bhava." The guest is god.
What is true for individuals and religious communities is also true for nations, especially the United States. Our nation's historical commitment to show hospitality to the stranger is evidenced in the immortal poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed underneath the Statue of Liberty:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
As a country founded on immigrants, coming to a land inhabited by natives who bore the brunt of our ancestors' anger and desire for a new life, we have had a very checkered record on immigration policy, which has mostly remained nonexistent at the highest levels of government until this very day. And this failure to adequately deal with this pressing issue of human rights is what has led us to what happened in Arizona.
We all should be paying attention to what is happening in our country right now, for it is not just Arizona. There is a swelling of anger and fear which is boiling over, as we continue to suffer from a serious recession, loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of control that thought we had over our lives, loss of our "American lifestyle." History teaches us that when things start to falter in society, people look for others to blame. Just as hospitality is an ancient virtue, scapegoating is an ancient vice.
As a nation, as a religious community, as religious people, we need to do a whole lot better at dealing with these issues than we are presently doing. We desperately need a society-wide commitment of our human, humane, and material resources if we are to make a real difference. Right now, I see little evidence of that kind of commitment.
But it is not easy to be welcoming of the stranger. Consider the similarity of our situation to Jacob's experience when he wrestled with the stranger on the banks of the river Jabbok as told in the Hebrew scriptures.
Jacob is returning to meet his brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his birthright in his youth. Jacob is anxious and fearful that his brother will still be angry with him and might try to kill him. The night before their encounter, while Jacob sleeps alone by the river Jabbok, he is accosted by a stranger who wrestles with him until dawn. In the process, Jacob’s hip is injured; yet he is not defeated, but blessed and transformed. Jacob walks away limping, proclaiming that he has seen God face to face.
Jacob’s story is our own as well, for we all have moments when we wrestle with the stranger. We are sometimes strangers even to ourselves. Such moments of struggle are important to our ethical life. For to be ethical requires that we be able to step outside of our own skin, to step back from ourselves, and view our own lives and actions as if we were another.
This capacity for alienation, this compulsion to wrestle with our consciences, discloses our openness to the infinite, which is the root of our human dignity. The concept of dignity involves transcending all classifications. We are to be treated as human and we need to treat all others as humans. Every attempt to exclude or belittle others based on their race, nationality, culture, class, gender, color, sexual orientation, physical ability, or religion is capitulation to prejudices and stereotypes that violate the dignity of others.
The story of Jacob suggests what it might mean to live a life of faith in a pluralistic world. We should not expect automatic harmony with our neighbors. When we encounter those whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways, we should expect conflict with them. But winning such a conflict need not be a zero sum game. Although Jacob was injured, he won, and yet the stranger was not defeated but instead blessed him. Jacob was wounded, yet blessed and transformed. That is what we should expect. Encounter with the stranger can be wounding, but it can be a wounding that will heal and transform us into finer new beings. Who we become through such encounters we cannot predict, but our expanded new being is a gracious gift of our encounter with the stranger. 
So, answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” hinges on allegiance. My neighbor is anyone and everyone I encounter. Our neighbors are those in need, those who are lonely, those who are hurting, those who need to hear a word of hope, those who are owed our care and concern wherever they might be. My neighborhood crosses all borders, and our neighbor is now everyone, everywhere.
Our calling as Unitarian Universalists is to be willing to step out of our comfort zones, to encounter, wrestle with, and reconcile with the stranger. God has given us hearts with many rooms, prepared us to be living sanctuaries, not only kind and true but bold and daring.
May we know the joy and suffering of interconnectedness. May we cross all the boundaries and borders that separate us one from each other. May our solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters be a transforming power in the world. May we choose the blessed path of hospitality. May we open our hearts and hands and welcome stranger and friend alike. With thanksgiving, may we be empowered to make it so.
- Singing the Living Tradition, #188.
- Adapted from The Coming of the New Millennium: Good News for the Whole Human Race by Darrell J. Fasching, p. 44-45.