“Welcome to Egypt!” We hear it a lot these days. Many people, who don’t speak much English, know this phrase. And seeing as I am obviously not from anywhere near Cairo, I get it a lot. From people at church, from taxi drivers, even the maintenance men on the elevator in our building yesterday. “Welcome to Egypt!”
We’ve officially been here a week now. And in the past week, I have felt welcomed. I’ve been so grateful for the patience, graciousness, and hospitality shown to me by people in the grocery stores, the guards in our building, the bawwabs down the street, people at church, taxi drivers, the people who helped us set up our bank accounts, and get our phones. It has made being a stranger in this new place relatively easy.
I am a pastor in an international congregation. And as I mused on the text for this weekend, I was struck by the themes of hospitality, both in the Hebrews text and the Luke. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). In his commentary on the Hebrews text for Sunday, Erik Heen points out that the word for hospitality is philoxenia–the love of the strange. As a stranger in a strange place who has felt a significant measure of grace these past few days, that stuck with me. The love of the strange, I like that.
As I write this, I’m supposed to be leading worship. But, due to news of big protests today, we cancelled worship. Usually, we can worship in the morning without any problems. But we have several sister congregations who worship in the afternoon. And for their safety, we cancelled all services today. It’s not the way I imagined my second week to go, and, inshallah, today will be like last week and end up being relatively quiet. But, we’re all vulnerable in this place, being strangers in a strange land. Whether we’re new to the country and blonde or have been here many years and have dark skin. Even Egyptians sometimes feel like strangers in their own country, unsure of what the future holds. We’re all strangers in a strange land. And, unfortunately, not all of my brothers and sisters experience that “love of the strange” in the same way I have over the past week.
In the Luke text for this weekend, Jesus, as he so often does, challenges me. As someone who has felt relatively comfortable as a stranger in a place where I don’t speak the language or look the part, I have experienced a measure of that “love of the strange.” And I am grateful for that. But I am not just a foreigner. I’m a foreigner who works with refugees. Who listens to stories and seeks to empower them. Who hears their stories of being frightened and uncertain. Who listens as they speak of the ways the curfew has made things very difficult. My experience is not theirs. And I struggle with that.
When I interviewed for this call, the executive director of the refugee service told me that, in spite of the sad, hard stuff, I would hear stories of hope. And those are the stories that keep you going. And it’s true. In spite of the heightened sense of uncertainty and fear that lingers around us these days, I sat yesterday and watched as children played in the courtyard. I listened to their laughter and watched as smiles lit up their faces. I stand firmly in the belief that that sound–the sound of children’s laughter–is the best sound in the whole world. That sound fills me with hope that the uncertainty and fear does not get to win. That sound renews my sense that there is hope for a world where grace and mercy and peace and “love of the strange” will prevail. I wish we could capture that spirit and inject it into ourselves when fear and prejudice invade our bodies.
In Luke 14, Jesus says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you….” In a city that, under normal circumstances, never sleeps, it’s hard to have a banquet when you have to be home by 9:00 PM (and 7:00 on Friday). But, yesterday, I was invited to the one of the finest banquets I have ever attended. One of the guards has been practicing his English, and he came to my office to invite me to come for lunch. About an hour later, I went down to sit with him, in a dusty plastic chair by the gate. A battered umbrella gave us a little shade in the 100 degree heat, the banquet table was a tiny table that had been carefully wiped off, and the fine cuisine came from a carry out place down the street. Over beef shawarma and rice, we talked. We laughed a lot. He taught me a few words in Arabic. He welcomed me, this stranger, and called me his sister.
It is an important bond we share, as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the bond that unites us across time and space. It is the bond that brings us together, though we might be strangers in every other sense. It is a bond that calls us and challenges us to love the strange. The foreigner. The unfamiliar. The one who doesn’t look like you, or speak your language. The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
As I anxiously watch the news, not just for what is happening in Egypt, but also for what will happen in Syria, I pray, today, that we can find it within ourselves, where ever we are, to practice philoxenia, the love of the strange. And to experience it, too. And by doing so, be it at banquet tables or under tattered umbrellas, that we see glimpses of God’s promised kingdom–where peace reigns and love is unending–revealed.