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Lenten Devotional — Week 3

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The Third Week in Lent

Sunday | March 20

Matthew 25 Spotlight  | St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles
St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church is reaching out to the staggering 60,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. St. Mark’s story of compassionate care includes active participation in Pacific Presbytery’s Homelessness and Housing Task Force. The presbytery also participates in the Hunger Action Advocate program of the Presbyterian Hunger Program of the PC(USA). As you watch this Matthew 25 body of Christ, lift a prayer for those who are seeing Christ in the strangers they meet.

Ponder
What is your initial reaction when meeting a stranger? Is there hesitancy, suspicion or even disinterest? Recall a time when you were the stranger to someone. How were you received?

I was a stranger and you welcomed me. — Matthew 25:35

 

Monday | March 21

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward. — Matthew 10:40–42

Weekly Spiritual Practice: Welcome and Hospitality
When we think of spiritual practices, what often comes to mind are activities that are contemplative, such as reading Scripture, praying and meditating. By its very definition, though, a spiritual practice — that is “an activity done regularly that furthers one’s spiritual experience” — can also include that of “welcoming.”

In this third week in Lent, we hear Jesus’ words from Matthew 25 about welcoming strangers. But what exactly does it mean to welcome others? And how can welcoming be a spiritual practice?

To truly be welcoming and show hospitality to strangers, we must look within ourselves and ask what the preconceived ideas are we have of others — what are our biases and prejudices that exclude and hurt. The spiritual practice of welcome and hospitality begins by recognizing how small we sometimes make our circle of belonging and by seeking ways to widen it.

In his book “Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life,” Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

Here are some ideas to begin exploring welcome as a spiritual practice this week:
• Identify someone in your workplace, community organizations or congregation whom you have never taken the time to get to know. Begin a conversation with them.
• Broaden not only your social circle, but think about the books you read, the TV shows you watch, etc. Challenge yourself to add diverse voices to your reading list. Watch documentaries about people or subjects you are not familiar with. Welcoming strangers is about listening to their stories.

Pray
Welcoming God, you call us each by name and embrace us with open arms — no matter how far we might have strayed from you. Help us in this Lenten season to become more welcoming of all your children. Just as you love us, may we love others. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

Ponder
Take time today to think about your circle of belonging. Who is missing from it?

Tuesday | March 22

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2

Checkout chats
The pandemic has been hard on many people for many reasons. For me, I have discovered that mask wearing has taken away those “smiles-on-the-street-from-strangers” moments that I didn’t realize till now had the ability to turn my day around. Pandemic precautions have also tempered my chatting with strangers. I can’t help it. I like striking up conversations with the cashier at the grocery store or the woman sitting next to me in the quick-change oil place while our cars get serviced.

With each encounter, I walk away feeling more connected to humanity, having shared a laugh, voiced a concern or simply found someone to commiserate with. My husband, the quiet one, always asks me why I talk to everyone I meet. I shrug that maybe it’s the reporter or pastor in me. Whatever it is, I do know this: Many times in my life these strangers have been angels in disguise, coming to me when I needed them the most.

I’m not the only one who knows the blessing of chatting with strangers. There’s a grocery store chain in Norway that understands. Noting how loneliness has become more acute due to the pandemic, especially among the elderly, the store has created “chat checkouts” — checkout counters (done with virus precautions in place) where folks are invited to linger and talk with cashiers. I doubt that chat checkouts would ever succeed here in the U.S. where any delay in our running around is greeted with impatience and short tempers. You mean we should take time to slow down and connect with someone? What a concept!

But I wonder what would happen if we ceased this frantic rush through life and took time to notice, stop and talk with others. During a pandemic, I know we don’t want to linger, but think about how we want to live when the virus eases. Do we want to miss the many angels among us that appear disguised as strangers? Who knows? There might be a heavenly conversation waiting for you at the grocery store.

Pray
God, forgive us for being so busy that we often don’t see the angels disguised as strangers in our lives. Slow us down this day. May we become more aware of your holy presence as we become more present to others. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Ponder
Do you know someone who might be experiencing acute loneliness today? What can you do for that person?


Wednesday | March 23

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:1–4

Chicken Noodle Soup
I remember the first “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book I received. I had just moved into Manhattan and was living alone. I had stayed home from work with a horrific cold. I didn’t want to call my mother in New Jersey, for I knew she would probably send my father into the city with a care package. As much as I would have welcomed that, I didn’t want to impose on my parents — or anyone. So, imagine my surprise later that day when the doorman buzzed to let me know I had a package waiting for me.

I shuffled downstairs and saw the package was a “get better soon” gift from a group of women at church that I hardly knew. I had just started attending worship and wasn’t very active in Bible studies. Inside were all the cold standbys: orange juice, tea bags, honey, cold medicine and, of course, cans of Chicken Noodle Soup — the ones I remember enjoying when I was little. There was also a coloring book, crayons (You are never too old to color!) and the “Chicken Soup” book. I curled up on the couch with my soup and juice and read it from cover to cover. I laughed. I cried. I felt myself feeling better both physically and emotionally.

They say chicken soup is healing. But I think it’s the care and love that goes into the making and sharing of the soup that is the real medicine. We all need homemade chicken soup — for our bodies and our souls. This third week in Lent, make a huge batch of it. And then share it with a stranger in need of a friend.

Pray
God, we pray this day for those who are “under the weather” be it physically or emotionally. Open us to the many ways that we can help heal others by our loving words and actions. Lead us to the many ways we can live Matthew 25 this day. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

Make Chicken Noodle Soup

      • 1 tablespoon butter
      • ½ cup chopped onion
      • ½ cup chopped celery
      • 4 (14.5 oz) cans chicken broth
      • 1 (14.5 oz) can vegetable broth
      • ½ pound chopped cooked chicken breast
      • 1½ cups egg noodles
      • 1 cup sliced carrots
      • ½ teaspoon dried basil
      • ½ 2 teaspoon dried oregano
      • salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot over medium heat, melt butter. Cook onion and celery in butter until just tender, 5 minutes. Pour in chicken and vegetable broths and stir in chicken, noodles, carrots, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes before serving.

 

Thursday | March 24

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. — Ephesians 2:19–22

The role of the stranger
Before seminary, I was working at a church in a wealthy New Jersey suburb. I was alone late one afternoon when the doorbell rang. We didn’t have a security camera, and I didn’t think anything about answering the door. I wish I had. There before me was a disheveled man. He requested money for a bus fare. I felt uneasy and quickly gave him what little I had, hurrying then to shut and lock the door.

I was rattled not so much about the man appearing at the church, but because I found myself wondering about that fine line of helping and being safe. I still wonder, but I have come to realize that sometimes I do need to trust my instincts and forego helping someone. But that is not to say we ignore strangers altogether. If anything, that encounter prompted me to consider how to serve God’s children safely and smartly.

Be aware of your surroundings. Trust your instincts. But also explore what the uneasiness with strangers might be revealing within your heart. What I realized that day was how quickly I began labeling this stranger: homeless, drug user and scammer. I didn’t believe he needed money for a bus fare. Yet, the following day, when I boarded the bus that would take me back to my Manhattan apartment, the man was seated in the front seat. As I walked by, he thanked me for helping him.

Parker Palmer once wrote that the role of the stranger in our lives is vital in the context of the Christian faith, for through strangers, God is persistently challenging our worldview. “It is no accident that God is so often represented by the stranger. God uses the stranger to remove the scales of worldly assumptions from our eyes,” said Parker. Yes, welcome strangers. They can teach us a lot about who we say we are. Welcome them, but always be smart and safe as you do.

Pray
God, as we seek to show your love by welcoming the strangers that we encounter, we pause and ask for you to protect us. Shield us from harm. Do not make us fearful of others, but more aware of situations and our surroundings. Help us to trust when we feel something is not quite right. Help us to know that nothing can thwart your work from being accomplished. And so, if we feel we have failed in serving you, help us to know that you will present us with more opportunities. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Ponder
Matthew 25 talks about welcoming the stranger. This can be looking to see who in your community is not represented in your church family. Who do we often exclude? The stranger can also be that person who reaches out to us for help. As we seek to live Matthew 25, how does the issue of safety while serving God make you feel? How can we be more proactive in welcoming the stranger while being mindful of our safety?

Friday | March 25

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. — Leviticus 19:33–34

A stranger in your land
I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I love that I can keep in touch with friends, especially those from high school with whom I would have long lost contact if it wasn’t for social media. But I also hate discovering how those I thought I knew harbor hate toward others. I have especially seen this in the comments that friends have made about immigrants: “They don’t deserve to be in our country.” “What about the rights of my children?” “They should speak English.” “Why do I have to fund their handouts?”

My heart breaks when I read such comments. My heart shatters when such comments come from those who are part of houses of worship. No matter how many times I remind the faithful that Jesus and his family were immigrants, fleeing to a foreign land to escape the dangerous King Herod, it just doesn’t seem to click that those who flee today are seeking safety for their own children.

And even long before Joseph and Mary’s escape with the Babe of Bethlehem, God made sure that the laws given to the children of Israel included laws on how to be welcoming to all. In Leviticus we are reminded that when an alien, a stranger, an immigrant, a foreigner — whatever label you use — enters your land, you do not oppress them.

Rather, love them as you would love yourself. Yet, it seems this love doesn’t come as easily as hate does. In 2020, a Psychology Today article explored what is behind this hatred of immigrants. In one of the studies cited in the article, conducted with men and women in their 30s, researchers found several perceived threats behind the hate. Among them was the threat to one’s way of life, be it religious or cultural. Another perceived threat was to job availability. The article concluded that those threats lead to fear, which then lead to hate.

Immigration issues are not easy to navigate. They can be overwhelming and become contentious. They can challenge the love of even the most faithful followers of Jesus. But we don’t have to be fearful that God will forget us when we welcome a stranger. God’s love is vast, endless and all-encompassing. Simply put, there’s room for all in God’s Matthew 25 kin-dom.

Pray
God, forgive us for becoming protective of what we have. Your love is for all. Your care is for all. Help us to remember that as we move forward, reaching out to strangers who are seeking safety and shelter in our communities. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Ponder
Imagine if you had to flee your home for the safety of your family. How would it make you feel to know you weren’t welcomed somewhere? What would you risk to secure a better way of life? How can living out Matthew 25’s welcoming of strangers be accomplished in your community?


Saturday | March 26

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. — Romans 15:7

Those under the bridge
I was early for my interview with a local police chief for my newspaper story on general safety tips. So, I sat in the precent and took out my reporter’s notebook to jot down some “to do’s.” As I made my list, I heard, “Are you a reporter?” A man nodded toward my notebook. When I confirmed I was, he let out a sigh of relief. He told me he had come to the police station several times looking for help. Finally, he found someone he could talk to. Before I could reply, he began telling me about the homeless people that were living under a bridge.

Every so often, I glanced up from taking notes to look at the stranger speaking. He hadn’t shaved, and he was on the thin side. His jeans were torn, and his jacket was threadbare. I realized he was one of those living under the bridge. After he was done, he thanked me for listening and reached out his hand in a sort of “I-dare-you-to-take-it” way, sizing me up for my reaction. His hand was crusted with callouses and dirt. His tense shoulders softened as I took it. His guarded eyes watered as I shook it warmly. How many times, I wondered, had that outstretched hand been rejected?

There’s a bronze sculpture by artist Timothy P. Schmalz of a homeless Jesus that is housed in an Italian basilica. Every time I see it, I think of my encounter with the homeless man from under the bridge. Just recently, Schmalz installed a replica of this sculpture in front of a church in Canada. This time, though, Schmalz placed the homeless Jesus in a circle of seats, making the art installation interactive. The artist, inspired by Matthew 25, said that when he thought of a stranger being welcomed, he didn’t think of a door opening to let the stranger in. Rather, he envisioned a circle to include the stranger in. “It reminds us that we are to welcome, not alienate others from our social circles,” Schmalz shared on his website.
I wrote the story about the homeless people under the bridge. Like many stories I write, I wonder who might have been inspired by my words? But most of all, I wonder, how many times I have missed touching the divine, because my clean, soft hand hesitated to touch that which was calloused and dirty?
Pray
God, you come to us in many different disguises, all of which we so often look down upon or quickly ignore. From the homeless to the outcast, to the one whose skin is a different color or whose accent is foreign, to those whose physical abilities are questioned or whose intelligence is put down, we miss divine encounters with you because we are looking for our own ideal of who you are. We want a God who is powerful, who is able, who looks like us and thinks like us. But that is not you, O God. You reveal your holy self to us in those we most often ignore. Open our eyes to see you. Open our hearts to receive you. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Ponder
What stories have your read or heard in the news that made you want to act? Did you take action? What held you back? Where perhaps has God been stretching out a hand to you in the form of a stranger that you have yet to grasp?

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