It shouldn't have surprised us but it did. We receive our share of Sunday morning visitors since the sanctuary of Lutheran Church of the Master sits on one of Los Angeles' main boulevards. But last Thanksgiving Day morning when everything else was closed for the holiday, an unusual number of strangers appeared for worship. Our ushers welcomed them, handed out bulletins and helped everyone find a seat. I noticed that one young visitor in the back pew was unusually restless, rising repeatedly and going outside. Perhaps he needed a smoke?
We heard Jesus' words from his Sermon on the Mount assuring us of how God providentially cares for us like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field-and how, therefore, we have no need to worry over what we will eat, drink or wear. After worship I encouraged everyone to join us for our traditional turkey dinner. This annual potluck is attended chiefly by members, many of whom are single or don't have family in the area. They enjoy being with their church family for the holiday.
This year our invited strangers chose to join us, some evidently familiar with one another if not with us. I noticed a couple of women I hadn't seen at worship were sitting with them. Who were they? How had they heard about our dinner if they hadn't been with us at worship? Later I heard that these were the mother and sister of the restless young man I'd noticed at worship.
Preoccupied with out-of-town friends at my table, it wasn't until the pumpkin pie that I managed to break away and introduce myself to the two women (the restless young man had again stepped outside). Out poured the story of how they had driven several hundred miles earlier that morning to locate their son and brother, whom they had learned was living on the streets. He was a 21-year-old Iraq war veteran, they explained, who had suffered severe posttraumatic stress symptoms since his return home. He had left the Veterans Affairs center in the Bay Area, hoping to find better treatment in our nearby VA hospital. But here, too, he quickly became frustrated. Turning to self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, he joined the ranks of Los Angeles County's 90,000 homeless people.
Their hope was to find this young man and convince him to come home. They were overjoyed to notice him pacing outside our church. He promptly invited them to join our Thanksgiving meal. They expressed their gratitude for the welcome and the meal. They also expressed their frustration at the level of care their psychologically wounded son and brother was receiving. The mother has become active in an advocacy group for returned vets. She testified to the dire state in which so many physically and brain-injured Iraq war veterans find themselves-as well as those emotionally damaged like her son.
We exchanged phone numbers and our interest in keeping in touch. But we haven't. I haven't seen them nor the restless young man since last Thanksgiving.
We've welcomed many strangers to our church since that Thanksgiving. We offer food and transportation. We advocate for just and effective public policies. We pray. It's not enough. More needs to be done, including by us.
What we do know-and what we're especially grateful for-is the gift of strangers toward whom the gospel moves us to practice the virtue of hospitality-a rich Greek word (philoxenia) that literally means "love for the stranger." It's the very opposite of the xenophobia that endangers our life together as a people. We know because we've experienced its truth: In welcoming strangers, God has sent us "angels unawares." This Thanksgiving we'll be particularly grateful for the strangers God sends us and will pray that we will hear the need in the message they bear us.
This week's front page features:
Avoiding deadly falls: California Lutheran University students seek ways to help the elderly.Discuss continuing education:
What kids do for hunger: Congregations share their ideas for collecting food and funds.
100 years and counting: Lutheran Campus Ministry began at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
St. Olaf Christmas in 196 theaters: Music festival will be simulcast Dec. 2.
Also: Arts & Books: Voices of hope.
Also: Presiding bishop: Colleges lead way.
This week on our blog:
Andrea Pohlmann (right) shares a sobering Thanksgiving thought: More than 35.5 million Americans went hungry in 2006.
Julie Sevig gives thanks for farmers.
Sonia Solomonson blogs about "unplugging the warrior."
Check out our blog > > >
Keep up with our guest blogger:
Justin Baxter (right), a student at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, is serving an internship at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, Calif.Communion age
He's keeping a journal of his internship at The Lutheran's Web site.
This week he continues his reflection on authenticity.
Read Justin's blog > >>
In the "old days" first communion was tied to the rite of confirmation. Then the age of instruction and first communion was lowered. Today in many of our churches young children — even babies and toddlers — are served communion. "The Use of the Means of Grace," the ELCA's statement of word and sacrament, states that all the baptized are welcome to receive communion. Yet a range of opinions on a proper age exists. Share yours.
Send your response to firstname.lastname@example.org by Dec. 12.
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